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The Price of Independence

Indonesia contributed more than Marshall

This article was originally published as "De prijs van onafhankelijkheid"

Source: Groene Amsterdammer #34 (Aug 2020)

Translation: Ewout van der Kleij

Everyone knows the Marshallplan, however the financial advantages that the Netherlands managed to obtain with the transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949 eclipsed the contribution from the United States. Indonesia became politically independent, but financially and economically the colonial relationship got far from eliminated.

By Anne-Lot Hoek and Ewout van der Kleij

On August 23rd 1949, a Tuesday afternoon with tropical temperatures, delegations from the Indonesian Republic, as well as the Federal States of East-Indonesia and the Netherlands gathered around the large oval table in the ‘Room of Knights’ (vert. Ridderzaal) in the Hague, under supervision of the United Nations, spearheaded by the American diplomat Merle Cochran.

After Sukarno and Mohammed Hatta proclaimed the Indonesian Independence on the 17th of August 1945, a political and military conflict raged for nearly half a decade. The Round Table Conference (RTC) in the political capital of the Netherlands was the intended concluding act where all parties were to agree upon the conditions of the transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia within a two-month timeframe, with the eyes of the international community watching every move made. It was the intention that after the transfer, with the British Commonwealth as the example, the ‘Dutch-Indonesian Union’ would be founded, consisting of the Kingdom of The Netherlands and the United States of Indonesia, with the Dutch Queen as the Crown of the Union.


 <Placeholder Photo>

The speech during the opening ceremony by premier Willem Drees (standing) during the transfer of sovereignity to The United States of Indonesia in the Royal Palace on Dam Square, Amsterdam, 27 december 1949. Beside Drees, fromleft to right: Hamid II, de sultan van Pontianak, vicepresident Mohammed Hatta en koningin Juliana

© Joop van Bilsen / Anefo / Nationaal Archief

The Indonesians were represented in two camps, but they had agreed upon the same agenda: sovereignty and nothing less. The specific terms and conditions would involve a fierce fight at the negotiation table. The Republican delegation was chaired by Vice President Mohammed Hatta and former Interior Minister Mohammed Rum, the Federal Representation by Prime Minister Anak Agung Gede Agung and Hamid II, the Sultan of Pontianak.

The Dutch government was respresented by ‘Minister of Overseas Territories’ Johannes van Maarseveen, minister of Foreign Affairs Dirk Stikker and diplomat Herman van Roijen. During the opening speech of the historical conference, the Minister-President Willem Drees emphasized that there were still many people against the independence of Indonesia within the Netherlands. So much was clear from an article by politician Frans Goedhart (PVDA), who wrote under the name of Pieter ’t Hoen in Het Parool, that in parallel with the conference “the Colonial Community for National Unity (het koloniale gezelschap Rijkseenheid)”, which was lead by former Minister-President Gerbrandy, had gathered in the zoo of The Hague to block the transfer of sovereignty. These “colonial men” according to ’t Hoen, rather unleashed a civil war in Indonesia than to lose tempo doeloe, the good old colonial times.

The Dutch government was primarily focused on the financial consequences of the settlement. H.M. Hirschfeld, the influential government commissioner and expert of the finances of the Dutch East Indies, viewed the political issues even as subordinate to the economic ones. According to him, of most importance for the Netherlands were, in addition to a favorable debt settlement, the preservation and recovery of investments in plantations, mining and rail and tramways. ‘Hirschfeld accepted with his opinion the political decolonization, but desired to maintain the financial economic colonization’ as stated by economist dr. J.M.M.J. Clerx, who handled the subject in the volumes on the Dutch cabinet Drees - Van Schaik as part of the publications by the Centre of Parliamentary History in 1991. This continuation of the colonial unequal relationship is also evident from a series of advantages that the Netherlands achieved with the transfer of sovereignty, often at the expense of the young nation of Indonesia.

The Dutch delegation started the negotiations rather firmly, with the demand that the entire debt of the Dutch East Indies, six-and-a-half-billion guilders, should be transferred to Indonesia, including the costs of all recent military actions that had claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 Indonesians. The original bill states that the "measures taken to restore order and peace ...had been in the interest of Indonesia".

It must have been a strange experience for the Indonesian delegation members. Mohammed Hatta had been imprisoned during the so-called 'Second Police Action' in 1948 and, Dr. Leimena, one of the Republican delegation members who was in Yogyakarta during the same action, had seen through a window how a Dutch bomb was coming his way and had managed to dive in a space below the stairs just in time before impact. Now they were all presented with the bill for the violence of war.

There were also opposing views on the Dutch side. A number of progressive Dutchmen, including Jacques de Kadt and Minister of Finance of the state of East Indonesia, M. Hamelink, felt that the Dutch delegation was inserting all kinds of conditions into the agreement while the Security Council had instructed to transfer the sovereignty "completely and unconditionally". The debt issue, which they saw as the most burning item, could only mean as far as they were concerned: "to demand nothing from the Dutch side." They felt that the only goal should be to restore the Indonesian economy, so the Netherlands could continue to trade with Indonesia.

Emotions ran high within the subcommittee that was specifically dedicated to deal with the debt issue, at the time known as the ‘schuldenkwestie’. Indonesia indicated that it would comply with the decision of the debt committee, provided that the timing of the transfer of sovereignty was not at stake and the additional military costs of the war of independence were deducted from the debt burden. The hard line of the Dutch government was remarkable because at that time it had already received part of the Marshall aid and other financial benefits for the reconstruction from other countries. Under pressure from UN diplomat Cochran, two billion guilders were deducted. In the end, Indonesia had to take over four-and-a-half-billion guilders in debt, with all the associated interest and repayment obligations.

Although the times were different, Suriname received full cancellation of its debts worth half a billion guilders upon independence in 1975. In addition, it received at least three-and-a-half-billion guilders in development aid.

The debt issue at the Round Table conference had been virtually forgotten in the public debate, until the now deceased former member of the House of Representatives (PVDA), Lambertus Giebels, argued in De Groene Amsterdammer in 2000 that Indonesia had made a significant financial contribution to the reconstruction of the Netherlands. Almost as much as Marshall. He indicated that when debt repayments by Indonesia were stopped in 1956, about six-hundred-and fifty million out of the four-and-a-half-billion guilders remained to be paid, and he subsequently implied that nearly four billion had been repaid. Which part of the debt was exactly ultimately repaid and whether the original amount was correctly determined is still subject to debate. Sources cited by Clerx, such as papers from the House of Representatives (vert. Handelingen van de Tweede Kamer), as well as retrieved by ‘Michael van Zeijl from acitivist group‘De Grauwe Eeuw’ , both substantiate the residual debt that Giebels mentioned. The amount has become even more plausible based on a document found in the National Archives in The Hague, the so called Nota Keuangan Negara, containing the repayment statements from the year 1952-1953. The interim positions of the Dutch loans are largely in line with the loan conditions.

Although the importance of the Marshall Aid was diminished by science decades ago, Giebels still made a comparison between the contribution of Indonesia and the Marshall Aid to emphasize the importance of the Indonesian contribution. Definitely an interesting comparison, but his conclusion was wrong. He used only one exchange rate, 3.80 guilder per dollar, for the conversion of the Marshall Aid of 1127 million US dollar, however that rate was only in use from September 20th 1949 onwards while emergency aid entered the Netherlands as early as April 1948 when the Bretton-Woods rate of 2.65 per dollar was still applied. Had he taken the correct rates into account, the nearly four billion euros would have been more than the Marshall Aid. But more importantly, the assumed debt burden was only the first advantage of the transfer of sovereignty for the Netherlands, along with at least five other large advantages.

The second advantage for the Dutch was the fact that the transfers of profits, pensions and dividends from Dutch companies in Indonesia could continue to flow back to the Netherlands, something the companies had forcefully lobbied for with the Dutch government. These transfers amounted to 3.2 billion guilders during the period 1950-1957. Only a smaller part was reinvested. “The Netherlands safeguarded its financial and economic interests at the RTC. Indonesia took over a lot of debt while the Dutch maintained their lucrative trade” Clerx commented. Almost half of the capital invested in the archipelago was in Dutch hands and Indonesia was only allowed to export to Europe via the Netherlands. In practice, very little came of the promised inclusion of Indonesians in the management of companies by the Netherlands, the so called indonesianisasi. Although monetary government policy and business were two relatively separate domains, they did interact with each other: the Dutch companies in Indonesia, like the Marshall Aid, helped to reduce the dollar deficit that prevailed in the Netherlands especially up to and including 1949.

The third advantage is that with the transfer of sovereignty the Netherlands relieved itself of the responsibility to support the economic reconstruction of Indonesia, while the Japanese occupation, the Allied bombings and the war of independence had caused enormous material and economic damages, which definitely had not been fully repaired with the transfer of sovereignty at the end of 1949. The Netherlands had filed a claim on behalf of the Netherlands/Dutch East Indies for the damage suffered against Japan, amounting to 24.5 billion guilders, more than seven times the Marshall aid. That claim was later withdrawn under pressure from America for fear of communism.

Professor Dr. Wytze Gorter already noticed the advantage of avoided costs by the Netherlands in The Economist of 1960, but did not label it with a price tag. Minister of Finance Piet Lieftinck mentioned in the Financieele Dagblad in 1949 that 1.6 billion guilders were at least necessary for reconstruction within Indonesia for the years up to and including 1952. Clerx referred in his volumes to the expectation of the Dutch government that the debt burden for Indonesia in the coming years would increase by three to four billion guilders, which on average equaled the entire Marshall aid.

Associate Professor Pierre van der Eng (Australian National University) confirmed this picture in the article Marshall Aid and Indonesia from 2003, in which he calculated the saved cost of economic aid at 7.25 billion guilders over the entire period 1949-1960. He did this on the basis of the actual aid that Indonesia received in the form of loans, donations and goods from the United States and European countries to keep the country afloat.

Van der Eng states that the Netherlands had been forced "to finance Indonesia's financial recovery from its own resources." Hence, the argument that the Netherlands would not step in financially because the Dutch East Indies was technically a separate legal entity is not valid in his view. Dr. Peter Keppy (NIOD) also wrote in Sporen van Vernieling from 2006 that Lieftinck occasionally invoked the autonomy of the Dutch East Indies, but on the other hand interfered intensively with the colony's finances. The Netherlands also provided financial guarantees for several loans from his colony.

A fourth type of advantage that Van der Eng mentions, is that with the signing of the transfer of sovereignty, at the discretion of the negotiators, various financial aid from America to the Netherlands was ultimately released. Dutch ministers had received promises, but there was no absolute guarantee: the Marshall aid was reviewed annually by America and was used as (symbolic) means of pressure. In addition to the release of the remaining released Marshall aid, Van der Eng also mentions an amount of four-and-a-half billion in military aid for the period 1949-1960. With the first four advantages of the transfer of sovereignty, he thus comes to a total advantage of at least 23 billion guilders for the Netherlands.

On top of the above list of what scientists have assembled in overviews of advantages, with this research additional advantages have been identified. Those two newly added advantages are described below.

The fifth financial advantage, is that as part the Round Table Conference (RTC) agreement, Indonesia was obliged to fully pay for any nationalisations. Although the United States of Indonesia was already disbanded by Sukarno in 1950 and replaced by the unified state of the Republik Indonesia, the RTC was only terminated by Indonesia in 1956 and the confiscation of companies started at the end of 1957.

After the transfer, Indonesia bought several companies that were in its national interest, such as railways on Java and the Overseas Gas and Electricity Company (OGEM). It also took over the domestic transport flights of the Koninklijke Nederlandsch-Indische Luchtvaart Maatschappij, as can be read in Recollections by the Indonesian economist Dr. Thee Kian Wie from 2003. In the Netherlands the image remains that Sukarno has only stolen companies. When former Indonesia correspondent Michel Maas stated in de Volkskrant in 2008 that the 'greatest' nationalization of the Java Bank had already taken place in 1951, before all companies were nationalized in 1958, he omitted that the bank was bought from shareholders from different countries for 120% of the listed share price on the stock exchange. Also, not all Dutch companies (in 1958) were affected by confiscation and nationalization, argued historian Dr. J.T. Lindblad in 2007 in NIOD publication ‘Van Indië naar Indonesië’. Unilever and Shell, who were half British, were allowed to continue for a while in the sixties and the Dutch Trading Company (NHM), "continued to function well into 1960," notably the company based upon which Multatuli had built his indictment in the Max Havelaar.

The sixth - significant - advantage that we added, is that due to the transfer of sovereignty, “all rights and obligations” of the Dutch East Indies were tacitly passed on to Indonesia, as a result of which the legal successor could be rightfully and wrongfully referred to in a long series of thorny detachment issues.

An example is the ‘Backpay’ issue, the failure to pay the full arrears of salaries and pensions to all civil servants employed by the Indian government during the Japanese occupation and in particular the soldiers of the Royal Netherlands Indies Army (KNIL) prisoners of war. In the years before the handover, victims of Dutch nationality were offered only a small part of the outstanding amount, non-Dutch government officials received nothing. In the years 1945-1949, the Dutch East Indies government, prompted by the Dutch government, based its unwillingness to settle the arrears on financial insolvency, according to Dr. Hans Meijer in De Indische Rekening.

After the transfer of sovereignty, it turned out that other countries had paid full backpay in similar cases. The dispute was subsequently brought to court in the Netherlands, where the Supreme Court rejected any responsibility of the Netherlands, referring to the 'rights and obligations' of the Dutch East Indies that had been transferred with the sovereignty to Indonesia. According to an article in the Algemeen Dagblad from 2017, the initial amount involved is 1.3 billion guilders, spread across 82,000 soldiers and civil servants, i.e. 16,000 guilders per person.

The same excuse was used in dealing with Indonesian war victims: a Dutch widow who brought a case against the Dutch state in 1950 for the murder of her Indonesian husband by a KNIL soldier in 1948, received a message from the Ministry of War that the liability had passed on to Indonesia. After the lawsuit and the court appeal, a settlement of 149,000 guilders followed, today roughly 660,000 Euro, in which all liability was rejected by the Netherlands. The widow accepted the money, but not the denied liability. By way of comparison, nine widows from Rawagede, relatives of war violence by Dutch soldiers, received an amount of 20,000 Euro per person in 2011.

In the 1950s, the Netherlands had relatively more money to spend because it e.g. only partially had paid the backpay. This stinginess was also reflected in the miserable reception of the Moluccan KNIL soldiers and their families who had been brought back to the Netherlands. The government generally only takes action in such matters after great social outrage or legal pressure. As part of the actual implementation of reimbursements, all kinds of restrictions are imposed, such as an age limit whereby only part of the victims receive compensation. The payments almost never entail compensation for real damage, but take on the character of a partial redress, such as the "gesture" to the “Indisch” community for the "cold reception", or the "symbolic" compensation to the widows of Rawagade. A generous approach, that at least attempts to do full financial and moral justice to the outstanding accounts, has not yet been achieved.

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There was great interest from the Indonesian side in front of the palace on Dam Square during the transfer of sovereignity

from the Netherlands to The United States of Indonesia. Amsterdam, 27 december 1949

© Fotograaf onbekend / Anefo/ Nationaal Archief / Collectie Spaarnestad

In addition to the six advantages mentioned above, there were also disadvantages from the Dutch standpoint of view. For example, the debt repayments were cancelled by Indonesia in 1956, and there was the loss of value of confiscated companies. These and other points were combined by the Netherlands in a self-calculated residual claim of four-and-a-half billion guilders and, after negotiations with Indonesia, was reduced to six hundred million, including all outstanding amounts from the RTC, as per agreement in 1966. That amount was repaid with interest by Indonesia up to and including 2003.

Another disadvantage was the loss of assets on the balance sheet that was transferred to Indonesia such as infrastructural assets and for example 10% of liquid assets. But at the same time they had come about during a colonial era of exploitation, a fact that the Netherlands did not seem to have been willing to recognize at the time. For example, Van Kleffens, the ambassador in Washington wanted to bring these 'benefits' for Indonesia to the State Department during the RTC negotiations to show that Minister Stikker did not want to force a “hard bargain” but was “generous” towards Indonesia: After all, the Netherlands had built all kinds of things on its own initiative, "given the indolence of the Indonesians," according to a letter from Van Kleffens to Stikker dated 9 October 1949 in the Official Records on Dutch-Indonesian Relations 1945-1950.

The Marshall Aid also gave the Dutch indirect benefits, such as additional self-confidence. However, no matter how you add things up: Indonesia under Sukarno contributed many billions of guilders more to the Netherlands in the meager 1950s than the direct Marshall aid of three-and-a-half billion guilders received from the US, which partially included loans.

Today, the direct Marshall aid amounts to roughly 16 billion euros. The benefits of the transfer of sovereignty for the first four advantages mentioned already amount to 103 billion Euro. The financial benefit of the fifth and sixth advantage still nee to be determined accurately and added to that amount. If you subtract all potential deductions on both sides of the equation, and also deduct the benefit of the released aid from America, even if you only count to the cancellation of the RTC in 1956, then the remaining benefit to the Netherlands is still many billions of euros more than the Marshall aid. 

Why has the large contribution from Indonesia not become known to a wider public yet? Van der Eng thinks it’s potentially due to the fact that "such money flows through banks out of sight and perhaps also the interest of the wider public." He also raises as potential cause that it helped that "behind the Marshall Aid there was a US government propaganda machine in which it was made absolutely clear to the citizens of the European countries who received the aid that the aid came from America." But it will also have been part of the long-standing lack of interest of the general public in the issues related to the detachment of Indonesia, including the New Guinea and the Moluccan issues.


Sutan Sjahrir, Indonesia's first prime minister in 1951 expressed a widespread Indonesian view that the continued economic dominance of the Dutch was causing the real fundamental problem in the relationship between Indonesia and the Netherlands. Not only has the Netherlands stood in the way of Indonesia's political freedom with weapons, the post-colonial relationship has also for a long time been characterized by a continuation of the financial and economic colonial relationship.

Anne-Lot Hoek is a historian and researcher. She is writing a dissertation/book about the Indonesian war for independence in Bali (UvA).

Ewout van der Kleij is a MSc in Business Administration (RUG) and CFO of a fintech company.

A Façade of Decency.

How the Netherlands Deals With Its Colonial Past

Original Title: "Een façade van zindelijk fatsoen. De Nederlandse omgang met het koloniale verleden"

Published within: Nulpunt 1945 (Zero Point 1945, Ons Erfdeel vzw, 2020).

Translation: Elisabeth Slaverda

For the Netherlands, the year 1945 was not an end to its war history. The country started a ruthless war, lasting almost five years, against Indonesian independence. Dutch colonialism had a façade of decency about it, a façade that has endured long after the so-called “police actions”. Dutch tolerance extends only so far; there is still no room for issues that question the decency of the establishment. In 2020, seventy-five years after the declaration of Indonesian independence, it was high time for apologies to be made at the level of government, and for historiography and a national memory that is more inclusive.

The Hague, 14 September 2011. In a courtroom, fifty-eight-year-old cement worker and activist Jeffry Pondaag and his lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld tensely await the judge’s verdict. Three years earlier, through his foundation the Committee of Dutch Debts of Honour (Komite Utang Kehormatan Belanda, KUKB), Pondaag had accused the Dutch state, on behalf of eight Indonesian widows and one male survivor, of being accountable for the execution of their partners in the Javanese village of Rawagede. There, on 9 December 1947, according to Indonesian counts, Dutch soldiers shot dead 431 men.

A mural at the Rawagede monument of independence depicts the 1947 massacre by Dutch military troops.

The incident took place during the almost five-year war that the Netherlands waged against its former colony after Indonesia declared independence on 17 August 1945. In the Netherlands, the war was euphemistically referred to as “police actions”. Pondaag, the son of an Indo-Dutch mother and an Indonesian father, in the years prior to the lawsuit had built a reputation for himself as the uncompromising thorn in the side of the establishment. He put the Rawagede case on the agenda, and with it the question of Dutch guilt in Indonesia.















The graves of Indonesian victims of the 1947 massacre by Dutch military troops at the Rawagede memorial.

On that autumn afternoon, sixty-four years after the crime, with only a handful of people present, the judge in The Hague delivered the ground-breaking verdict: the widows of Rawagede had been wronged. They were entitled to a state apology and to compensation for their suffering over the years. When the judge pronounced the ruling, the news took a while to register, sinking in for Pondaag only later, when he was approached by the media outside the court. At long last, recognition for the victims, he told the NOS news programme: ‘Their honour has been restored.’ After years of petitioning the Dutch state and lobbying the country’s historians in vain, the judge had thrown open the debate about colonial history for good.

“Good colonials”

Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) – this is how Germany has addressed its fraught wartime history at the national level: subjecting itself to a thorough historical self-examination. With regard to its colonial past in Indonesia, but also in Suriname and the former Netherlands Antilles, such scrutiny never happened in the Netherlands, which resulted in an incomplete picture of Dutch identity. The judge’s ruling in the Rawagede case was at odds with the Dutch self-image of a tolerant nation. The belated awareness of a violent colonial past has meant that the Netherlands is only beginning to come to terms with that history now. At the same time, hardly any attention is allotted in the debate and historiography to the long freedom struggle as it was fought on the other side of the ocean. Postcolonial and Indonesian voices are still being side-lined, and exacting questions are often ignored. This typifies the notion of Dutch tolerance: it does not accommodate issues that question the decency of the establishment. This is central to the difficulty in handling the colonial past, which Pondaag also encounters in his struggle for recognition for Indonesian victims.

The belated awareness of a violent colonial past has meant that the Netherlands is only beginning to come to terms with that history now

By his own account, Pondaag got lucky when he arrived in the Netherlands from Jakarta in 1969 at the age of sixteen. After twenty years’ silence on the matter, earlier that year war veteran Joop Hueting had appeared on national television saying he had witnessed and was guilty of war crimes in Indonesia. It was like a bomb exploding. Hueting had to go into hiding with his family because of the numerous threats he received from East Indies veterans. Never before had the Netherlands been so directly confronted with the flipside of 1945: the Dutch people saw themselves as victims of war by the German occupiers, not as perpetrators in Indonesia.

The Dutch military Joop Hueting gained national fame in 1969 because he

spoke openly about war crimes committed by Dutch soldiers in Indonesia.

The commemoration of 1945 was about “never again”, about peace, coal and steel, the idea that liberal democracy had finally won out in an economically united Europe, not about asking fundamental questions about one’s own identity. But the historical interpretation of “never again” is inextricably linked to the role played by Europe in its colonies. The image posited by Hueting hit extra hard because the Dutch saw themselves as “good colonials” in the Indies. Few Dutch people know that in 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany and to everyone’s horror locked up his political opponents, Surinamese nationalist Anton de Kom and Indonesian nationalist Sukarno were being banished for their political views in the Dutch Indies. Indonesian freedom fighters were simultaneously silenced by the hundreds in camps in intolerable places such as Boven-Digoel in New Guinea.

Indonesian freedom fighters were simultaneously silenced by the hundreds in camps in intolerable places such as Boven-Digoel in New Guinea

Hueting’s statement of guilt in 1969 caused a great deal of controversy amongst veterans. Pondaag’s Indo-Dutch uncles who had served with the KNIL (Royal Dutch East Indies Army) were furious. The Indo community had come back traumatised, their history scarred by the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during the Second World War and the Bersiap, a revolutionary period in which Indonesian youths killed thousands of mixed-race and pro-Dutch people. For the veterans, the Indonesians had been “terrorists”. ‘I was called a murderer right here on the street for being Indonesian,’ says Pondaag. ‘But were we not liberated on 17 August 1945?’ he had asked his Dutch family incredulously. The official Dutch interpretation is that Indonesia only became independent when the Netherlands transferred sovereignty on 27 December 1949, a date that means next to nothing in Indonesia. Accordingly, the question of who the inhabitants of the Indonesian archipelago were in the period between 1945–1949, and what consequences this entails – a question that Pondaag regularly asks during public debates – still leads to upset in the Netherlands.

Hueting’s disclosure in 1969 was followed by the so-called Excessennota (Note on Excesses), an inventory hastily drawn up by the government of violent acts committed by Dutch military personnel, which concluded that these were merely isolated incidents. The lid was closed again. Three years later, in 1971, a statute of limitations was even instituted, a criminal law stipulating that war crimes could not expire, with the exception of those committed in Indonesia by Dutch soldiers in the period 1945–1950. The law was thus used politically to prevent Dutch people from being tried of war crimes in Indonesia.

Everyone knew, but no one could say it

The other side of Liberation in 1945 – the brutal war waged by the Netherlands against the independence of Indonesia, and its aftermath – also remained underexposed in academia. Historians asked few questions and people went along with the political refusal to address the subject. Writer Rudy Kousbroek (1929–2010), interned as a child in Japanese camps in the Dutch East Indies, denounced Dutch historians who, in his view, consciously noted only the unblemished parts of history and skilfully avoided the more tarnished pages. A famous clash between Kousbroek and the Leiden historian Cees Fasseur – who had compiled the Note on Excesses as a civil servant in 1969 – exposed how the academic establishment was skirting the issue. The two clashed about the 1904 Rhemrev Report, a government-commissioned and then covered-up report on the atrocities committed against contract coolies on the east coast of Sumatra, which was only dusted off in 1987 by the sociologist Jan Breman.

Cees Fasseur / Rudy Kousbroekphoto Kousbroek © Wim Ruigrok

What troubled Kousbroek most about the report was the attitude of the parliamentary minister back in 1904 who had ridiculed the speakers quoted in it, knowing full well that in reality the abuses were much worse. ‘It is that mentality, that feigns innocence of murder, that façade of decency I have come to regard as the most miserable aspect of colonialism,’ he wrote in his book Het OostIndisch Kampsyndroom (The East-Indies Camp Syndrome; 1992). Kousbroek reproached Fasseur for knowing about the report, but having done nothing about it. Fasseur claimed that the archive was publicly accessible. This was the mainstream defence of the establishment when it came to the violent colonial past. It was mostly via the media and literature such as Alfred Birney’s De Tolk van Java (The Interpreter from Java) that a different reality became apparent, while independent researchers were often dismissed as incompetent or activist.

The Interpreter from Java by Alfred Birney

It later transpired that the very same Fasseur had kept an important report on Dutch war crimes in his attic for a long time. The Swiss-Dutch historian Rémy Limpach (Netherlands Institute for Military History), formerly an independent researcher, was the first to state, in his 2015 dissertation at the University of Bern, that the excessive violence in Indonesia had not, as the Note on Excesses claimed, been incidental but rather structural. A conclusion that the historical establishment had not dared to voice, but which Fasseur – who avoided the subject himself as a professor at Leiden University – would call “obvious” in his memoir Dubbelspoor (2016). Everyone knew, but no one could say it, he said, displaying precisely that mentality, that façade of decency, which Kousbroek had attributed to the colonial system.

It will not have been a coincidence that Fasseur accompanied former Queen Beatrix as an adviser during her state visit to Indonesia in 1995. The occasion offered a chance to recognise Dutch moral failings as well as Indonesian independence, but it turned out to be a denial of both. Although she had been invited by the Indonesian authorities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Indonesia, the Queen was absent on 17 August, arriving a few days later. Her absence was especially painful because the Dutch TV channel RTL had aired a documentary about the Rawagede massacre just days before. During the visit, the monarch subsequently did not mention the moral failings of her country, but spoke to Indonesians about their own handling of human rights. Pondaag, on the other hand, had deliberately decided to be in Jakarta with his family that day in 1995. ‘I wanted my children to understand the significance of 17 August for Indonesia.’ They learned very little about it at school, says Pondaag. And it is their in his view inadequate history lessons that prompted him to speak out about this history. The airing of the documentary about Rawagede was the deciding factor for him to visit and start campaigning for recognition of Indonesian victims. But the Netherlands would not hear his case.


Persistent misunderstanding of Sukarno’s struggle








Jeffry Pondaag

In 2005, sixty years after Indonesia’s independence, Pondaag founded the Committee of Dutch Debts of Honour on 5 May, a reference to the Japanese debts of honour and to Liberation Day, ‘to emphasise that Dutch war history did not end in 1945’. In August of the same year, during the Indies war commemoration in The Hague and then in Jakarta, Ben Bot, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that the Netherlands had been ‘on the wrong side of history’ and that the date of Indonesian independence was accepted ‘politically and morally’. It was the first time that a moral statement had been made by the Dutch government regarding the past in Indonesia. But what exactly did Bot’s words mean, and for whom? In March 2020 a great gesture finally came from a head of state: an apology for excessive violence by King Willem-Alexander in Bogor. Although it is an important step, it still leaves many issues untouched. The societal discussions about the colonial past are thus not tied off yet.

These faltering attempts to relate to the colonial past highlight the focus on one’s own national history. That focus has shuttered off the Indonesian ideas about freedom, change and resistance. A few years ago, Pondaag started dressing up as Sukarno in a white suit with a black peci cap, and he now regularly appears like this when campaigning in public. It is a political statement. ‘Sukarno has never been accepted here in the Netherlands.’ The total absence in the Dutch public debate of Sukarno – the patriarch of the Indonesian nation – is striking, and reflects the Dutch incomprehension of the long struggle for independence.


Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president

On 17 August 1933 – twelve years before the declaration of independence – Sukarno was interrogated in Bandung, on the orders of the Council of the Dutch East Indies, for writing the pamphlet Mentjapai Indonesia Merdeka (“achieving Indonesian freedom”). In the police report drawn up of his arrest, Sukarno defended his cause: a free Indonesia was a legally justified struggle, ‘similar to the workers’ struggle in Europe.’ His interrogator likened the freedom struggle to the antics of a child who wanted to be released from ‘parental authority,’ as an expression ‘of hatred for the parents.’ Sukarno remarked that unlike children, Indonesians were not born of the government, whereby he captured the essence of Dutch paternalism. He was banished by the Governor General.

The unfamiliarity with Indonesian nationalists and their ideas of freedom caused persistent misunderstanding. During the war of independence, a military doctor on the demarcation line in Java had already warned, in a letter sent to the Dutch mission in Jakarta, that the lack of political awareness among the Dutch military was leading to atrocities against Indonesians. The soldiers made statements such as: ‘Sukarno is just like Mussert, a collaborator: get rid of him!’ They did not believe him when he explained that Sukarno, Sutan Sjahrir and many others had been imprisoned for decades. The doctor tried to explain the sustained rejection of Dutch authority by the Indonesians; this message never arrived in the Netherlands. Nearly seventy years later, Indies veterans still burst out in rage when they hear the name “Sukarno”. The first Dutchman to interview Sukarno was the journalist Willem Oltmans in 1956. The two became friends, in response to which the Dutch government thwarted his career for a long time. With his white Sukarno suit and black peci cap, Pondaag counterbalances the dominant narrative in the Netherlands in which the struggles of Sukarno and of many other Indonesians, which preceded 1945 by far, are still ignored.

Colonialism in crisis

Pondaag’s action of drawing public attention and debate to a colonial problem via a costume does not stand alone. In 2011, the same year as the court’s ruling on Rawagede, Quinsy Gario, an artist and activist with a Curaçao background, printed “Black Pete is racism” on his shirt during the annual festivity of the arrival of Sinterklaas, which took place that year in Arnhem. The white saint’s black helper had always been explained in the Netherlands as a sooty chimney sweep, but Gario stated that Black Pete depicted a slave and should no longer be represented as such in this day and age. Racism and the history of slavery were put on the map in one fell swoop and it led to a fierce social debate. Again, it was not the historical establishment but activist voices from the postcolonial community that set the agenda.















Quinsy Gario wearing the shirt 'Black Pete is racism'

But even though the call for polyphony is getting louder and louder, there is another that harks back longingly to colonial times, to the good old days. For example, Thierry Baudet, the leader of the radical right-wing political party Forum for Democracy, paints a positive colonial past with seventeenth-century Dutch flagships booming in the surf. Shining a light on a glorious, but one-sided past is a hallmark of the international rise of authoritarian politics: Trump is making America “great again” and Putin is looking for the “primeval” Russian.

By making a distinction between population groups, as Baudet also does, he upholds the core of the colonial system. Baudet’s concerns about “uprooting” in politics, which he targets against newcomers, stem from his self-confessed Dutch Indies background, where themes such as uprooting and nostalgia were important. For example, in 2018 he contended in the Dutch Indies monthly magazine Moesson (Monsoon) that the Netherlands should never have given up Indonesia and should only apologise for one thing: ‘that we gave free rein to the criminal regime of Sukarno’. For him, Sukarno is the criminal who took the beautiful colonial times away from his family, who uprooted people, synonymous with the threat of strangers now standing at the gates of Europe.

Thierry Baudet© Twitter

The meanwhile highly polarised Dutch colonial debate was recently described by Ariel Heryanto, professor of Indonesian Studies at Monash University, in the NRC Handelsblad newspaper, as “colonialism in crisis”. In 2016, after persistent social pressure, the Dutch state released money for a four-year historical inquiry into Dutch conduct in Indonesia in the period 1945–1950, which after all this time was an important step forward. The social debate has since shifted from the national-centric Vergangenheitsbewältigung to the “decolonisation” of historiography, public space, museums, education and commemorations. British academic Priyamvada Gopal explains decolonisation as a process whose main purpose is to understand more of other people and cultures. The use of violence has been shrouded in silence, but so have the Indonesian views, and this shows how the colonial attitude still prevails. It is this lack of multi-perspectivity in dealing with the colonial past that the Netherlands continues to struggle with. The National 4 and 5 May Committee, which organises the annual commemoration of the Second World War, has so far been unable to bridge the gap from “never again” to the flipside of 1945, to Indonesia, and in the national historiography, the Dutch voice still dominates the narrative.

© Trui Chielens

The repositioning of landmarks

On 27 June 2019, Pondaag once more found himself in court in The Hague, alongside his lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld. The Dutch state had appealed against the ruling in the case of Mr. Yaseman, now deceased, who had been tortured by Dutch soldiers in a prison on East Java in 1947; the judge had ruled in his favour and awarded him a sum of €5,000. Also present that day were the children of two victims of the executions by Dutch soldiers in South Sulawesi; they too sought justice. The session coincided with the opening by King Willem-Alexander of the Sophiahof in The Hague, a museum established in memory of the Dutch East Indies. Outside, the relatives of Indo-Dutch soldiers, who have been fighting for decades for the unpaid wages of their husbands and fathers during the Japanese occupation, were protesting.


The Indo-Dutch community does not feel heard, while one of the main defences used by the Dutch state in court was that the reliability of Indonesian witnesses is poor. Once again, it is this persistent refusal to listen to people’s testimonies, in the knowledge that Yaseman’s torture was one of at least tens of thousands, if not many more, that makes the façade of decency noted by Kousbroek painfully tangible.

It is time for the Netherlands to acknowledge the crime committed by the Netherlands in waging war against the young nation

On 17 August 2020, it will be seventy-five years since Sukarno, together with Mohammed Hatta, proclaimed Indonesian independence. It is time for the Netherlands to graciously recognise this date and history. The legacy of the colonial past cannot be tied off simply by apologies at government level. What is at stake really is the enduring space that will have to be provided for various voices, and for critical debate that questions the decency of the establishment. Only this can reposition the landmarks of the colonial legacy to allow for historiography and a national memory that is more inclusive.


This article is the English translation of Een façade van zindelijk fatsoen. De Nederlandse omgang met het koloniale verleden, published in the book Nulpunt 1945 (Zero Point 1945, Ons Erfdeel vzw, 2020). 

For ordering the book in Dutch, see: "Boeken & Bundels" on this website

Sutan Sharir: Indonesian Revolutionary

This article was originally published as part of Bridging Humaties:

Source: http://dissentingvoices.bridginghumanities.com

Publisher: Brill, April 2019

Author: Anne-Lot Hoek



In 1935 the twenty-six-year-old revolutionary Sutan Sjahrir sailed, together with several other prisoners and some guards, onto a brown-yellow river in the New Guinean jungle. The group was on their way to the Dutch concentration camp Boven-Digoel. Sjahrir had been imprisoned there for a year without any kind of process, on suspicion of hate speech and disruption of the public order. In one of the letters to his Dutch wife, which were later published as the Indonesische Overpeinzingen (published in English as Out of Exile), Sjarhrir wrote that he was punished because all he wanted to do was to serve his people. Sjahrir was a man of great intelligence, courage and inspiration, and his letters form an important source for historical research into the perspectives of Indonesian intellectuals in the colonial Dutch Indies. He nevertheless has not received much attention in the Dutch postcolonial debate. In this section Anne-Lot Hoek introduces Sutan Sjahrir, about whom she had previously published as a journalist, aiming for more interest in the Dutch debate over the struggles and search for freedom of the leaders of the Indonesian revolution. 

On 15 November 1946 the agreement of Linggadjati was concluded in which the Dutch government and the Republik Indonesia agreed on a first step towards Indonesian self-government. Sutan Sjahrir signed the agreement on behalf of the Republik Indonesia. The negotiations took place at  Linggadjati, a mountain village in West Java. The photos show Sjahrir in the negotiations, as well as the former Dutch prime Minister Wim Schermerhorn, who led the negotiations, and the Dutch Lieutenant-Governor General Van Mook.


Dissenting voice imprisoned

Indonesian nationalism crossed borders early on, and the rise of nationalism inspired the creation of new networks extending beyond the Netherlands and the Netherlands Indies. As Klaas Stutje wrote: “the Indonesian student community can serve as a good example in the Dutch imperial context of the idea among British historians that the Imperial Project was not only an act of intrusion of a colonial power in foreign lands, but to some extent also worked in the opposite direction with regards to the circulation of people, ideas and political forces.”2 As early as 1913, individuals within the Dutch-based ‘Indische Vereeniging’ started to move in a nationalistic direction, mainly inspired by the Menadonese Sam Ratulangie, Soewardi Suryaningrat and Tjipto Mangoenkoesoemo. Indonesian nationalism in the Netherlands flamed up in 1918 after the First World War, when Indonesians inspired by the American president Woodrow Wilson called out for the right to self-determination. The Indonesian music-teacher and nationalist Raden Mas Soorjo Poetro wrote a pamphlet during the Dutch governmental elections in 1918, calling on his countrymen in the Netherlands to vote for the party that was most apt to support Indonesia in its struggle for independence, the socialist party. “Voting countrymen! The becoming state of Indonesia is in need of the most important thing: the right to self-determination. [..] Vote for the party that is in favor of the detachment of Indonesia of Holland. Vote red!”3


In 1929 Sjahrir joined the political movement Perhimpoenan Indonesia (PI) – the successor of the Indische Vereeniging – when he studied economics in Amsterdam and where he was in contact with Dutch as well as Indonesian intellectuals. Other nationalists, like Mohammed Hatta, Achmad Soebardjo, Abdulmadjid Djojoadhiningrat, Raden Slamet Faiman and Rachmad Koesoemobroto, had also been or were also part of this movement. In 1931 Sjahrir returned to Indonesia with the goal of raising the consciousness of Indonesians.


Sjahrir was a socialist whose thoughts about freedom focused on democracy and internationalism, as well as on the rights of the individual. He was an Indonesian who criticized the colonial experience, like Kartini (1879-1904), Soewardi Soerjaningrat (‘If I had been a Dutchman’, 1913) and among many others including the poet Chairil Anwar and S. Rukiah Kertapi, the forgotten female writer of the Indonesian revolution. His publication ‘Indonesische Overpeinzingen’ (1945) is an important source for understanding how Indonesians living within the Dutch colonial state have written about their individual experiences and their rights.4 It shows many of the ambiguities that Sjahrir encountered in the colonial context and on which he would later reflect. As Paul Bijl writes, ‘the legal spaces produced by Dutch colonial law – the prison cell, the camp, the island as a place of exile – have ambiguous legal meanings for Sjahrir as, on the one hand, it is the law that produces them, yet, on the other, they stand outside the law.’5

Indonesische Overpeinzingen shows the violent colonial context of the Dutch Indies. Indonesians did not have civil rights as the Europeans living there did. Those who protested against that situation, like nationalists and alleged communists, were stigmatized and imprisoned. ‘Anyone who is even slightly suspected of leftist sympathies is labelled as a communist’, wrote Sjahrir. Of course, not everyone who was called a communist was one. ‘Oftentimes people are called communists in order to make prosecution of them easier’, he argued.6 Not long before Sjahrir returned to Indonesia, there had been police raids on (alleged) communists. The leaders of the resistance, including Sukarno, had been imprisoned. Soon after Sjahrir settled in Indonesia, he became a suspect as well. In 1934 Sjahrir was arrested. Both of his brothers and his sister-in-law were fired from their jobs, his acquaintances were spied on, and all of the people he and his family were in contact with were suspects of the Dutch Indies intelligence service.7

Sjahrir was not the only person imprisoned because of his political ideas. Between 1926 and 1942, thousands of other people were locked away in Boven-Digoel, especially alleged communists8. Sjahrir described this place as unpleasant, terribly hot, ‘uninspired’ and a camp where people withered away into ‘mental ruins’ as a result of malaria and mental illnesses.9 As an inmate, Sjahrir had to build his own hut and provide his own clothing and food. There was a possibility to earn some income through labor, but when one was unable to work, one was dependent on fishing from an almost empty river. The conditions that Sjahrir described show the extreme consequences that dissenting voices in the Dutch Indies met when speaking out on colonial injustice.


Addressing the Dutch double standard

The general idea in the Netherlands was that the inhabitants of the Indies were given schooling and healthcare, and the conditions in Digoel or the fates of others who were critical of the system were mostly unknown. In his letters, Sjahrir flawlessly showed the double standard of the Dutch in regards to their colony. He read In de Schaduwen van Morgen by the famous historian Johan Huizinga (1935), who painted a very dark picture of a Europe where Hitler and Mussolini were in power and where the internal moral decay of Western society lay at the roots of totalitarianism. Huizinga described ‘the suffering of the times’. Whereas the book was received very positively by most Dutch intellectuals, Sjahrir saw it as a disappointment. Huizinga condemned the killing of people as done by Germany in the early 1930s but stated that violence could be justified to defend one’s own legal order. ‘Killing and protecting – of who and against which groups?’ the revolutionary asked himself doubtfully. ‘What do the Germans do other than defend the legal order – their legal order – with all possible means that those in power have at their disposal?’ In the Dutch Indies there were police raids against alleged communists. According to Sjahrir, Huizinga was one-sided in painting the image of the times: he criticized Germany but accepted ‘the gummy bat, the rattan stick, the whip, concentration camps, imprisonments’ to defend his own legal order, and thereby overlooked the civil rights of millions of Indonesians. This injustice was not addressed by Huizinga in his best seller, and thereby he put his readers ‘on the wrong track’, according to Sjahrir.11

The ‘wrong track’ that Johan Huizinga put his readers on by portraying an ethical colony that knew no oppression, fed a longer existing idea of a tolerant and innocent nation, that still exists in Dutch society. One might wonder whether Huizinga knew about the framing and prosecution of large groups of people as enemies of the state, as was the case in the Dutch Indies. Sjahrir believed that Huizinga’s blind spot was caused by his Calvinist worldview, a view full of ‘hedges and ditches’ and small spaces, appealing to the Dutch moral framework: ‘The Dutch mind, the authentic Dutch parochialism, that does not know how to differentiate between small and large’.12

Huizinga found himself in a tradition that was rooted in Ethical Politics, the Dutch colonial approach as it had been constructed at the end of the nineteenth century by leftist and Christian politicians. The capitalist exploitation of the colony had to be redeemed by the development of its indigenous inhabitants, with a possibility of autonomy. It became a ‘white man’s burden’ – the idea that the white man had to help the black man to become civilized. Colonialism was in the interest of the Indonesian people. That these Ethical Politics were based on the idea that one group was superior to the other did not raise questions for Huizinga in the 1930s, as Sjahrir suggests.

The tradition of ethical, colonial politics persisted into the setting up of development aid in the 1960s. One of the most prominent supporters of Ethical Politics, Charles van der Plas, put all his energy into the development aid that was organized after Indonesia had gained its independence. He was not the only one: many former colonialists transferred to the Dutch development aid efforts that were established in Indonesia in the 1960s by the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Luns. The United States went into the world to make it better, and the Netherlands could not stay behind. The essence of the Dutch development aid (or as it was later called: development cooperation) could be traced back to the ethical tradition: the idea that not only the Indonesians needed the Dutch to become developed, but that this need for Western help also applied to the whole African continent.13 The core of the idea, the colonial system, was overlooked.

Creating hope at Linggadjati

Back to Sjahrir in the Dutch Indies. In 1942 the Second World War had also broken out there – the archipelago was occupied by Japan. The Japanese freed Sjahrir from his exile, but he, unlike other Indonesian revolutionaries, was not willing to cooperate with a fascist regime. In his ideals on democracy and human rights he proved to be unambiguous. When the Indonesian fight for freedom broke out in 1945 and many people associated with colonialism, including Dutch, Chinese, Menadonese (from North Sulawesi) and Moluccan people (from Maluku), were attacked and or killed, Sjahrir categorized this violence as ‘fascist cruelties’ in his pamphlet Onze Strijd (1945).14 At the same time he soon proved to be a skilled negotiator with the Dutch from his position as the first prime minister of the Republic of Indonesia. His anti-Japanese attitude gave him the advantage with the Dutch over Sukarno, who was seen as a collaborator.

Sjahrir reached out internationally in his fight for independence. It is, for instance, little known that Australia played a role in the revolution: longshoremen refused to load the Dutch ships carrying arms and supplies and setting sail for Indonesia. Sjahrir addressed these workers in a radio speech15 stating that the Indonesians stand together with Australia against “all enemies of freedom.”

After protracted negotiations the Linggadjati Agreement was finally drawn up between the Netherlands and Indonesia in November 1946, named after the Javanese village where the ‘basis-agreement’ was signed. The harmonious negotiations were led by former Prime Minister Piet Schermerhorn and Sjahrir. His daughter Upik repeated the words Sjahrir spoke out during Linggadjati at the Dutch embassy in 2009:

“The agreement we sign today is a first step towards freedom from this suffocating condition, a first step in our pledge to banish darkness and bring back a time of brightness and clarity, a time of objectivity. A time when the cry for ‘Freedom!’ no longer threatens humankind, but is instead a cry for humanity that will move each and every human being, in a new time of liberation where our humanity is easily moved by any utterance of humanity. The world is full of conflict, of dangers of war, of darkness. In Indonesia we are lighting a small flame, a flame of humanity, a flame of common sense, that aims to get rid of the darkness, the conflict that has ensued from and resulted in rape and destruction, suffocation, and darkness. Let us now care for this flame so it will continue to burn, and burn even brighter. May it be the beginning of light throughout the whole world.”16

However, despite the clear message of hope and connection, many conservative Dutch saw the treaty as a failure. The Dutch government changed their part of the treaty, and in the summer of 1947 all the built-up hope turned into a military operation: the First Police Action or Agressi Belanda I.

Legacy of inspiration

In 1949, after Indonesia became independent, Sjahrir soon came into conflict with Sukarno, the charismatic leader of the revolution and the first president of Indonesia, who imprisoned him. Siti Rabyah Parvati, ‘Upik’, the daughter of Sjahrir and his second, Indonesian wife, was only three years old when her father was arrested and locked up without any kind of legal process. In 2009, she was invited by the Indonesian embassy in The Hague to give  a moving speech about her father. “Sjahrir, a man of peace, was unable to enjoy the love of his family and his children” she said about her father. In 1965, General Suharto took power. The ghosts of the communist enemies of the state came back under the influence of the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were murdered.

Sjahrir had been sent to Switzerland by Sukarno that same year because of health problems, where he was reunited with his family. Siti sat on his lap every day and saw the tears running down his face, as she recounted in her speech. The family would not be together for a very long time – in 1966, Sjahrir passed away. “When we returned to Indonesia, we made a short stop at Schiphol, where a short ceremony was held in honor of my father,” said Siti. Former Prime Minister Schermerhorn and several other Dutch politicians and friends paid their respects.

After he died he was declared a national hero in Indonesia and received a state funeral attended by a huge crowd of people. It was somewhat remarkable after his long imprisonment. The Indonesian Soewarsih Djojopoespito stated: “Flowers and flower petals were spread from a helicopter….A funeral like for a hero, like for a king, carefully organized. Why had nobody raised a voice to get this man free?”17 Rudolf Mrázek, who wrote a biography on Sjahrir, stated that Sjahrir in Indonesia remained “misplaced” in the memory of his role in the revolution. At the same time, of the ‘Big Three of the Revolution’ – “after all marginality he had lived through” – he became the only one who was buried at the center- stage, in the state heroes’ cemetery.18

In the Netherlands he has been almost forgotten. Mrazek writes that Sjahrir’s imprisonment in 1962 received little attention in Holland: “Even in The Netherlands itself, however, after all these years, Sjahrir seemed to be not much more than a name from a distant past remembered with some difficulty.”19In Dutch history, the dissenting voice of Sjahrir – as of many other foremen of the Indonesian revolution – is largely overlooked. Sjahrir challenged and criticized the colonial system and the Dutch national narrative, and presented a mirror that still holds up till today. His legacy is, however, that of connection between Indonesia and the Netherlands. In her speech in the Netherlands, his daughter expressed her wish that her father’s ideas would not be forgotten and would be an inspiration for young people and world leaders, “and be a light that shines the souls of our people.”20

For many Dutchmen he has been that inspirational voice indeed, for instance for Joty ter Kulve – van Os (Semarang 1936), who is the chairman of the Indonesia-Nederland Society. The Linggadjati agreement was signed at her parental home.21 Ter Kulve was inspired by Sjahrir to culturally connect the two countries and their shared history, a mission she spends a lifetime working on.  Sjahrir was an inspiration for progressive Dutchmen during the Indonesian independence war, such as for civil servant Siebe Lijftogt and also for post-war dissenting voices such as author Rudy Kousbroek and younger critics such as historian/politician Zihni Özdil. Sjahrir, his ideas and his lifestory are just as much part of Dutch history as the ‘Soldaat van Oranje,’ – the most famous Dutch freedom fighter – and should be given an equal place within Dutch national memory.

Anne-Lot Hoek in conversation with Joty Ter Kulve – van Os (1926) about Sutan Sjahrir. During the Houses of resistance meeting, 5 May 2017 at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam.  By Kevin Kwee – Huizen van Verzet.  In the background the portraits of the series Real Heroes, by Herman Morssink (see section Rachmad Koesomobroto)






  1. C. Smit, Het dagboek van Schermerhorn [Schermerhorn’s diary] (Utrecht: Nederlands Historisch Genootschap, 1970).

  2. Klaas Stutje, “Indonesian identities abroad International Engagement of Colonial Students in the Netherlands, 1908-1931,” BMGN, volume 128-1 (2013): 153. This text is based on previous journalistic work, in particular the article: Anne-Lot Hoek, “In naam van merkeda,” [in the name of Merkeda] De Groene Amsterdammer, August 2, 2017.

  3. ‘Een Indiers uitspraak,’ Het Volk: dagblad voor de arbeiderspartij, July 2, 1918.

  4. Sutan Sjahrir, Indonesische Overpeinzingen [published in English as Out of Exile] (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1945).

  5. Paul Bijl, “Human Rights and Anticolonial Nationalism in Sjahrir’s Indonesian Contemplations,” Law & Literature, 29:2 (2017): 252.

  6. Ibid: 95.

  7. Kees Snoek, “Soetan Sjahrir. De strijder,” [Soetan Shahrir. The warrior] in Rosemarijn Hoefte, Peter Meel & Hans Renders (ed.), Tropenlevens. De (post)koloniale biografie [Tropical lives. The (post) colonial biography] (Leiden/Amsterdam: Boom, 2008), 170-171.

  8. Journalist Karin Amatmoekrim wrote an article about Boven-Digoel for the online platform De Correspondent in a series about ‘silenced histories’ in which she compared it to Guantánomo because it was a place of exile where political prisoners were banned without trial. Karin Amatmoekrim, “Hoe Nederland zijn strafkamp in Nieuw-Guinea trachtte te vermommen.” [How the Netherlands tried to disguise its prison camp in New Guinea] De Correspondent, March 7, 2018.

  9. Sjahrir, Indonesische Overpeinzingen, 58, 60.

  10. Spaarnestad Photo, collection Het Leven (unknown photographer), ‘Communistische gevangenen. Geboeid worden een aantal communistische “raddraaiers” van boord gezet en geïnterneerd op Boven-Digoel. Indonesië, 1927’ [Communist prisoners. A number of Communist “wheel-turners” are handcuffed and boarded at Boven-Digoel. Indonesia, 1927]. See: Geheugen van Nederland

  11. Sjahrir, Indonesische Overpeinzingen, 88-93.

  12. Ibid, 89.

  13. See for instance: Inge Brinkman in cooperation with Anne-Lot Hoek, Bricks, mortar and capacity building, A Socio-Cultural History of SNV Netherlands Development Organisation (Leiden: Brill, 2010).

  14. Sutan Sjahrir, Onze Strijd [Our Struggle] (Amsterdam: Vrij Nederland, 1945).

  15. Radio broadcast from 1945, inserted in the article Australian waterfront workers support Indonesian independence against the Dutch. Website ABC news Australia.

  16. Speech Upik Sjahrir on Exhibition ‘The Linggadjati conference’ in The Hague, February 15 2010. Website of the Indonesia Nederland Society.

  17. Rudolf Mrázek, Politics and Exile in Indonesia (New York, Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 1994), 494.

  18. Ibid, 497.

  19. Ibid, 464.

  20. Upik Sjahrir, 2010.

  21. Joty ter Kulve – van Os visited the parental home in 2012, a journey captured in the form of a documentary made by Twan Spierts ‘Terug naar Linggajati’ [Back to Linggajati], which was screened by Omroep West on 14 October 2012.

Rachmad Koesoemobroto:

fighting for freedom, a life imprisoned

This article was originally published as part of Bridging Humaties:

Source: http://dissentingvoices.bridginghumanities.com

Publisher: Brill, April 2019

Author: Anne-Lot Hoek



Stories of Indonesian anti-German resistance fighters in the Netherlands, such as the story of Rachmad Koesoemobroto (1914-1997), have to date not attracted much publicity in the Netherlands. Koesoemobroto studied in Leiden in the 1930s and became a member of the Perhimpoenan Indonesia (PI). During World War Two he joined the Dutch resistance, together with his wife, and was involved in hiding Jewish children. After the war, he returned to his country of origin to pursue the ideals of freedom he had developed while staying in the Netherlands as well as to continue the battle for an independent Indonesia. He was imprisoned by the Dutch, and later again under Suharto, only to be released in 1981. His story shows the transnationality and continuity in ideas and ideals about freedom. The children of these forgotten Indonesian war heroes are still fighting for the recognition of their fathers in the Netherlands. In this section Anne-Lot Hoek introduces Rachmad Koesoemobroto, about whom she had previously published as a journalist, aiming for more recognition in the Dutch debate over the anti-colonial and anti-German resistance of Indonesians in The Netherlands.


Murjani Kusumobroto (Surabaya, 1954) recognizes a lot of Sjahrir’s ideas in those of her father, Indonesian nationalist Rachmad Koesoemobroto (1911-1985). As was the case with Sjahrir, his political ideas caused him to spend much of his life in prison. As the son of a Javanese leader, her father studied law in Leiden in the 1930s and, like Sjahrir, he became a member of the Perhimpoenan Indonesia (PI). Whilst living in the Netherlands, he married a Dutch woman. When World War Two broke out in 1940, Koesoemobroto – and with him many other Indonesian PI members like Slamet Faiman and Abdul Madjad Djojoadiningrat – paused his battle for Indonesian independence and joined the Dutch resistance, together with his wife. They were involved in hiding Jewish children. “My father was an antifascist, just like Sjahrir. For him, it did not matter if that fascism was Dutch, German, Japanese or Indonesian,” his daughter says about his decision to join the resistance, during a conversation I had with her in the framework of an interview for an article in De Groene Amsterdammer in 2017.1 Stories of Indonesians who were active in the Dutch anti-German resistance are fairly untold in the Netherlands. Many Indonesians died for the freedom of the Netherlands, including Irawan Soejono2, whose remains were later brought back to Indonesia by Koesoemobroto and his wife.

Rudi Jansz (Batavia, 1915 – Amsterdam, 1965), the father of singer and songwriter Ernst Jansz, was also a member of the anti-German resistance. Jansz was a courier of documents, brought Jewish children to safety, and was imprisoned by the Germans. Although he was fighting for freedom in the Netherlands, the ideal for a free Indonesia was always present. In his book De Overkant Ernst Jansz quotes a letter that his father wrote from the prison to his wife in 1944: “I try as much as possible to be worthy of Christ’s name, your love and my country Indonesia.”3 Another important Indonesian PI member in the Dutch resistance was the Javanese Raden Mas Setyadjit Sugondo, who received the pseudonym ‘Sweers.’ Henk van Randwijk, an important figure in the Dutch resistance and editor of the illegal magazine Vrij Nederland (Free Netherlands) was highly impressed by Setyadjit’s personality and political insights. Van Randwijk’s increased interest for the Indonesian independence struggle was influenced by PI members, amongst whom Setyadjit.4 After the war, Vrij Nederland published articles in favour of Indonesian independence. Famous is Van Randwijks critical words on the frontpage of the magazine at the start of the so-called ‘First Police Action’ against Indonesia in the summer of 1947: “Because I am a Dutchman.” He wrote: “because I am a Dutchman, I say, no! Against violence, which is currently committed by us in Indonesia. By unleashing a colonial war in Indonesia, the Netherlands is committing political folly.”5

Some of the children of the Indonesian resistance fighters have been fighting for years to get the deeds of their fathers recognized. One of these dissenting voices is Iwan Faiman, the son of Slamet Faiman. Faiman, Sr. smuggled Jewish children over the Dutch border and arranged false documents. “The heroic deeds of the members of PI have never been recognized,” Faiman, Jr. says. “Even worse – the Netherlands took a hostile position after World War Two because the goal of independence that the PI-fighters pursued was seen as a threat to the Dutch nation.” But their lives were equally marked by war. Faiman says his father’s war past affected the entire family. His father contracted polio during the war and because of his resistance activities he could not get proper medication. “Nevertheless, my father had to struggle for 25 years to get his resistance subvention.” Faiman wants recognition for this forgotten group of freedom fighters. He feels that his voice and that of other relatives remain unheard. “It is about time that we are heard – not only by the government, but by the Netherlands as a whole.”6 Journalist Herman Keppy  is one of the few in the Netherlands who has paid attention to this group of Indonesian and Dutch-Indo resistance fighters.7



The photo from the Herman Keppy archive shows Rachmad Koesoemobroto on the left with two Jewish sisters Jewish sisters Emi and Miri Freibrunn who were in hiding in the foreground, and his then fiance Nel van den Bergh on the right. When the house was betrayed, Nel van den Bergh was taken prisoner and murdered. The Jewish children survived the war and live in Israel. Rachmad Koesoemobroto later married Nel van de Peppel, was also active in the resistance movement, and who knew Koesoemobroto from his time in Wageningen, where he was head of the PI district. In 1946 they boarded the ship Weltevreden to go to Indonesia, where their seven children were born (personal communication Murjani Kusumobroto).

Fight for independence

After the war, in 1946, Koesoemobroto returned to his country of origin to pursue the ideals of freedom he had developed while staying in the Netherlands as well as to continue the battle for an independent Indonesia. In 1945, Indonesia had declared its independence. The Dutch newspaper Het Parool wrote about the farewell at the harbour of three members of the PI, Eveline Poetiray, Soeripno and Koesoemobroto who returned to Indonesia with the boat ‘Weltevreden.’ Although the Indonesians were happy to return home, it turned out that many friendships had been made, which made the farewell “heavy” according to the newspaper.8 Ironically enough, the Dutch imprisoned him in Indonesia, as he was a former member of the resistance. When he was interrogated, he denied that he was the famous revolutionary Rachmad Koesoemobroto. “Just as this questioner started to doubt if he had the right person in front of him, a Dutch soldier walked by. He knew Koesoemobroto from their time in the Dutch resistance together and shouted ‘Hey Rachmad, what brings you here?’’ Despite describing the event with much humor afterwards, it was a tough thing,” says Murjani. “He was imprisoned for one and a half years and my mother had to survive on her own. There was no money and she lost an eight-month-old baby. Both of Koesoemobroto’s brothers were shot during the battle for independence, one by the Brits and the other one by the Dutch.”9 The British, as one of the allies, had to protect law and order in the Dutch Indies after the capitulation of Japan, and quite often also got into conflict with the Indonesian resistance, for example at the battle of Surabaya, near the end of 1946.

Koesoemobroto was imprisoned in post-colonial Indonesia. Initially, Sukarno had sent him to the Netherlands to work at the Indonesian embassy in Wassenaar in 1964.  When he visited Indonesia shortly after that, there had been a change of power. Sukarno and his government had been deposed, and since Koesoemobroto had been part of that regime, he had to go into hiding for three years. The regime of the Indonesian army and General Suharto murdered tens of thousands of alleged ‘communists’ in 1965 and 1966. Koesoemobroto was betrayed and arrested in 1967. He was released only in 1981. During his imprisonment he was put in front of a firing squad four times, as a form of fake execution, says Murjani. But he never let go of his ideals. “My father could have gotten out of prison earlier via an amnesty ruling that applied to him because he had been part of the resistance, but he wanted to get out of prison only if all his fellow prisoners would be released. That was his political belief; he did not want to be privileged. He also never applied for a Dutch Verzetskruis (badge of honor for resistance activities).”

When he was in prison, Koesoemobroto received the news that one of his children had passed away, the fourteen-year-old sister of Murjani who died in a car accident. “The guards laughed about it. That must have been terribly humiliating for my father.” Despite that, Koesoemobroto always tried to change the beliefs of the younger guards. “One time, the prison had organized an educational trip to a statue of one of the heroes of the independence struggle, who coincidentally was one of Koesoemobroto’s brothers. “Koesoemobroto?” said one of the guards. “Is he related to you?” “Yes”, my father said, “that is my brother. We all fought for the freedom of Indonesia and look how you are treating me right now.’’’10



The statue of Lt. Soejitno Koesoemobroto, brother to Rachmad Koesoemobroto, in the middle of the square in Bojonegoro, East Java, Indonesia. He was remembered as an independence fighter while Koesomoebroto, who fought from for the same ideals, was arrested because of his ties to the Netherlands. Source: Wikipedia

Fight for recognition

Like Sjahrir, Koesoemobroto had to pay for his ideals: he could not see his children grow up. Murjani says: “we did not even know if my father was dead or alive.” After the fatal accident involving Murjani’s sister, the mayor of their hometown Bennekom tracked down Koesoemobroto with help of the Red Cross and Amnesty International. At that moment, he was on the prison island Buru, that had ironically had fulfilled the same function during the Dutch occupation. In his letters to Murjani, he wrote: “The belief that what I stand for is the right thing, keeps me going.” Strikingly enough, she saw the first images of him on the Dutch TV-show Hier en Nu, presented by Catherine Keyl in 1978. Keyl interviewed the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Soebandrio, in the same prison that Murjani’s father was locked up in. The camera team that was with Keyl heard someone shouting from behind a wall, ran towards it and filmed what they saw. “From behind that wall, my father shouted ‘I used to live near the Magere Brug in Amsterdam! Say hi to my daughter!”11 Not long after that, he arrived in the Netherlands, severely weakened. He was able to return later to his country of origin as a free man.

Koesoemobroto’s story shows how there was a continuity in ideas and ideals about freedom and a protest voice against the supressing of it that arose in the Dutch Indies, found its way into Dutch society, was lived by in the German-occupied Netherlands, Dutch-occupied Indonesia, and in an independent Indonesia itself. Koesoemobroto fought for a freedom that was inclusive, an ideal that got him imprisoned for life by several regimes. His story and that of others also shows how interrelated Dutch and Indonesian history are, how ideals about freedom were exchanged and how, especially in the memory of the Second World War, little recognition is given to Indonesian resistance.

The story of Koesoemobroto and the stories of many others did not attract much publicity in the Netherlands. These kinds of stories were complicated and did not fit in with the dominant narrative. Murjani has been telling her father’s story for some time now, mostly at primary schools, via the story-telling initiative ‘’Oorlog in mijn buurt’’[War in my neighborhood]12 in Amsterdam. The 4&5 May Remembrance in Amsterdam, ‘Huizen van verzet’ also often pays attention to this forgotten group.13 When telling her father’s story, Murjani reflects on the traces of colonialism and resistance against it in her own family connecting Dutch and Indonesian history. Murjani and Faiman believe that the way in which history is being taught in Dutch schools does not present a sufficiently broad perspective, since the mainstream curriculum offers little recognition to their fathers. Murjani and Faiman, who were heavily influenced by their fathers’ experiences to fight for human rights, hope that their fathers get recognition in the Netherlands for their role during the war and that their stories contribute to a better understanding of Dutch history in schools today.



  1. Anne-Lot Hoek, “In naam van Merkeda,” [In the name of Merkeda] De Groene Amsterdammer, August 2, 2017. From interview with Murjani Kusumobroto and Iwan Faiman, Amsterdam, June 7, 2017.

  2. See two blog posts on the website of the Indonesian writer Joss Wibisono [in Indonesian]. One on the life history of Irawan Soejono, and one on the remembrance of Irawan Soejono in Leiden, with a photo of Ernst Jansz who spoke at the meeting.

  3. Ernst Jansz, De Overkant [The other side] (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij In de Knipscheer, 1985) 59.

  4. Gerard Mulder and Paul Koedijk, H.M. van Randwijk: een biografie [H.M. van Randwijk: a biography] (Amsterdam: Raamgracht, 1988) 338.

  5. Henk van Randwijk, “Omdat ik Nederlander ben,” [Because I am a Dutchman] Vrij Nederland, July 26, 1947. Later because of its significance, also published by the NRC Handelsblad and De Groene Amsterdammer.

  6. Interview Kusumobroto and Faiman.

  7. See also his website.

  8. “Indonesiers keeren naar hun vaderland terug”[Indonesians return to their home country], Het Parool, December 9, 1946.

  9. Interview Kusumobroto and Faiman.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid and see: Ton Hydra, “Gevangenen en vrije mensen,” [Prisoners and free people] Nieuwe Leidse Courant, April 20, 1978.

  12. See the website of the organization In mijn buurt [in Dutch].

  13. The website [in Dutch] also presents the meeting in 2017 at the Tropenmuseum at which Anne-Lot spoke with Joty Ter Kulve about Sutan Sjahrir and Ernst Jansz spoke about his father. The Tropenmuseum functioned as the headquarters of the Indonesian resistance against the Germans during the Second World War.

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Siebe Lijftogt: a critical voice branded a traitor

This article was originally published as part of Bridging Humaties: Dissenting Voices: Challenging the Colonial System’

Source: http://dissentingvoices.bridginghumanities.com

Publisher: Brill, April 2019

Author: Anne-Lot Hoek



Former resistance fighter and Indonesian civil servant Siebe Lijftogt (1919-2005) challenged the narrative of a Netherlands that was on the right side of history during the Indonesian independence war on the island of Bali. He held on to the values of the anti-German resistance as they were manifested during the Second World War and encouraged his now powerful resistance friends to take responsibility. Inspired by Sutan Sjahrir, he felt that the Netherlands had only one job: helping to build up a new, independent Indonesia. But in his letters, which his children found after his death, he describes another reality. He became part of the colonial system, a system he fiercely criticized, and it isolated him in a terrible way. In this section Anne-Lot Hoek describes the life story of Siebe Lijftogt, about whom she had previously published as a journalist aiming to give more insight into the role of dissenting voices during the Indonesian independence war.




Photos from the archive of the Family Lijftogt show Siebe Lijftogt as a young servant on Bali.

The Swiss-Dutch historian Rémy Limpach describes in his dissertation De Brandende kampong van Generaal Spoor (2016) a forgotten, but meaningful group during the war in Indonesia: the many whistle-blowers. Critical soldiers or civil servants stationed in Indonesia who wrote to editorial boards of Dutch magazines and newspapers and whose letters to their supervisors or parents were published (with or without their permission). Limpach researched who notified the authorities in cases of extreme violence and what kinds of resistance there was against mass violence, but also looked into the consequences of being a whistle-blower and the responses of the authorities in the different cases. There were cases of soldiers sending letters home or to the press, but there were also people who notified judicial or military authorities and people who resisted orders to execute Indonesians without any kind of legal process. Twenty-six soldiers defected to the other side.1

The most famous defector is Poncke Princen, who was called a traitor for decades after the incident and was not allowed to enter the Netherlands until 1994. The stories of critical soldiers and civil servants and deserters have received little scholarly attention, which is striking. According to Princen, the cause partly lies in the fact that chauvinism and freedom were such loaded concepts that the previous generation had a very hard time cutting themselves loose from them. In his autobiography Een kwestie van kiezen he underlined the central issue in times of war: “should you, despite conscientious objections, be forced to follow orders, or should you obey to your own conscience?”.2

Soldiers and civil servants who had been in the Dutch resistance in World War Two were also confronted with questions of conscience. A special example is the story of the civil servant Siebe Lijftogt, who wanted to produce change from within, based on his interpretation of the humanist values of the resistance, and was therefore branded a traitor by his countrymen. It would not be the first time that critics were kaltgestellt (sidelined) on Bali: in 2014, I published in the NRC about a report made by a police agent who had collected almost six hundred pages of information on the role of Dutch authorities in corruption and illegal trade.3 One of the critical voices on the island was sidelined by the authorities on the island, and the same happened with the police agent who wrote the report.


Letters on the attic

Lijftogt suffered a similar fate on the island, when he criticized the harsh military course. He was briefly mentioned in The Dark Side of Paradise, the PhD thesis of Canadian historian Geoffrey Robinson, published in 1995. The statement in a footnote that he and his wife were called ‘inlanderliefhebber’[‘native lover’]4 inspired me to trace his relatives.

The encounter with his daughter and son and the discussions we’ve had resulted in my receiving a big suitcase full of letters that he actually wanted to burn before he died, but did not. The letters included Lijftogt’s experiences and ideas as a critical civil servant on Bali and Lombok. They made a huge impact on me personally. I was impressed by Lijftogt’s philosophical thoughts in the midst of a confusing, violent historical crossroads, his modesty, and his honesty, but also by his firmness and, as a former member of the anti-German resistance, his strong emphasis on non-violence towards the Indonesian resistance. But most of all, I admired the fact that he observed and understood things that others didn’t seem to understand or refused to act upon. He was part of the colonial system, but criticized it, and it isolated him in a terrible way. I wrote an article about Lijftogt for the Dutch newspaper NRC5 and gave several classes about his life for high schools in Amsterdam and The Hague. For the Amsterdam 4&5 May committee I interviewed Ida Lijftogt at the NIOD (see photo below), as well as Wolter Gerungan, whose father fought as a freedom fighter on Bali.6 The experience of interviewing children of these critics was meaningful for both parties: pieces of information were gathered into a new narrative and placed into a broader historical perspective.



Anne-Lot interviewed Ida, Lijftogt’s daughter and Wolter Gerungan, son of a Menadonese revolutionary on Bali at the Niod on the occasion of a commemoration of Liberation day 5 May 2016.7


A new, independent Indonesia

Lombok, 4 July 1946

‘The new supervisor […] is a man, raised in the tradition of a proper administrative body and with a proper education. […] He is punctual, precise and deals with people in a nice way. However, everything that is outside of his view is being handled with such ease that it is frightening’. When you hear him speak about the way the English expelled the extremists [the Indonesian resistance] from Bandung […] “These extremists fell from the tree like ripened apples. I can see such a guy lying down there. He got what he wanted – it is what he asked for, right?” This man […] that deals kindly with his servants, loves animals and is also a carpenter, tells his stories with such liveliness and taste that almost make you forget what terrible things he says. He simply does not see it, he does not see the consequences of what happens there, he cannot see it.’8

This is what Siebe Lijftogt wrote to his wife Linde on the 4th of July of 1946. He was 26 years old at the time, had been part of the Dutch resistance and had left for Indonesia shortly after the Second World War to work as a civil servant. In the year before that, the nationalists led by Sukarno had declared the independence of Indonesia. This was only partly recognized by the Netherlands, triggering a very violent conflict. From 1946 until 1950, Lijftogt held positions on Lombok and Bali. The ethos of the Corps Binnenlands Bestuur (BB) – assisting the local residents – matched very well with his ideals as a former member of the resistance. In his view, the Netherlands had only one job: helping to build up a new, independent Indonesia, ‘with all the best that we brought from home.’ One of the people who inspired Lijftogt was Sutan Sjahrir, whose Indonesische Overpeinzingen he had read with much interest. He urged the home front, the Indology faculty in Utrecht, to read Sjahrir’s work. He offered more than other revolutionaries – ‘he offers a road to healing’, according to Lijftogt.

But in his letters, which the children of Lijftogt found in his attic after he passed away in 2005, he describes another reality. His fellow civil servants, colleagues and supervisors seemed to have the capability to understand the violent battle for independence, but an internalized blind spot prevented them from doing so. That led to even more violence. Lijftogt sees the violence, including that of his own supervisors, as ‘German behavior’. He does not want to be an occupier. That is why he makes a desperate moral appeal to his former resistance buddies, the former board of the National Committee of Resistance: Marie Anne Tellegen, who had become the director of the Cabinet of the Queen, and Lambertus Neher, who had become the delegate of the Supreme Management in Batavia. The latter calls Lijftogt crazy. The recent attention to violence in the Indonesian war for independence (1945-1950) mainly focused on soldiers. The involvement of civil servants with extreme violence has thus far received little attention.


17 January 1969

It is the night on which Dutch Indies veteran Joop Hueting (see video in section Cees Fasseur and his critics) publicly revealed that Dutch soldiers were guilty of war crimes during the battle for independence in Indonesia. His revelations caused a shock throughout the Netherlands. Veterans were filled with rage. Hueting had to go into hiding with his family. The whole commotion led to the so-called Excessennota, a limited investigation into the alleged excessive violence ordered by the government. Siebe Lijftogt, together with his daughter Ida, watched the show in which Hueting made his claims and ‘nodded in agreement’, as she remembers. However, he did not speak about his own experiences in the Dutch Indies nor in the resistance movement.

Lijftogt was the head of the Nationale Comité-courier center in Utrecht and had given the go-ahead for the Februaristaking, which happened in Amsterdam in 1941. He chose civilized resistance over violence. He had wanted to destroy letters and documents from his time in the Dutch Indies, but his daughter stopped him from doing that, she says. ‘He was a humble man who did not speak much. He was afraid that no one would understand him’, says Ida. When she and her brother Gerard recently read his letters, they were shocked. Their father had never been so outspoken and sharp towards them. ‘It is only now that I understand how dramatically significant what my parents experienced there was’, she says.

 ‘Completely wrong’

Maart/March 1946

Many Dutch military personnel and civil servants were completely exhausted from the hardships in the Japanese camps, Lijftogt observes after he arrived in Batavia, in March 1946. Despite that, the ex-prisoners wanted to return very quickly to the colonial situation they were used to. ‘Linde, you can see the arrogance and the impotence of so many Dutch people here’, he writes to his wife.

According to Lijftogt, his fellow civil servants severely underestimate Indonesian nationalism and believe that the Indonesians are on their side. They do not put much effort into trying to figure out the real situation. ‘They all talk about the hatred of the baboe [maid] for Sukarno and the loyalty of the bicycle repair man’. However, his colleagues have little contact with the baboe and the bicycle repair man, Lijftogt concludes.

In April, Lijftogt addresses his first cry for help to the Nationaal Comité, his supervisors in the resistance and his ‘mentors’. These are the people on whom his moral compass is based, as he would emphasize multiple times. Together with a fellow civil servant he calls for rapid changes in the Dutch Indies policy. ‘We have completely lost power here’ and the Netherlands quickly needs to accept that, ‘if we want to be welcome here in the future.’

On Lombok, his new location where he arrives in April, the political situation is a lot calmer than on Java. Lijftogt becomes responsible for the shelter of political prisoners. He sees this as ‘a unique opportunity to get in touch with the local inhabitants’, as he gleefully writes home. From his letters we see that he becomes more and more understanding of their battle for freedom and even becomes friends with some of them.

His boss, however, Assistant Resident Edy Lapré, who had spent the occupation in a Japanese camp, did not share Lijftogt’s sympathy with the ideals of freedom. When resistance group Bantang Hitam (black bull) spread anti-Dutch pamphlets one night and committed an attack on a military camp, Lapré reacted ‘ as if a bomb had exploded in his mood’. Many people, including some who were innocent, were arrested and forced to sit for long periods in the sun. He also recruited one thousand locals to demonstrate against the resistance movement with slogans that were written by Lapré himself, such as ‘Come on out, the knives and slaughter houses are ready’. Lijftogt confronted his supervisor about this.

That had little effect, as Lapré’s superiors seemed to support his behaviour. The Bali and Lombok Resident, H. Jacobs who was ‘a devilishly fine’ man with lots of humour and tact, even called for executions after the Balinese resistance took revenge on a town that had collaborated with the Dutch. Jacobs gave the chiefs ‘explicit power to straight away kill every pemuda [resistance fighter] that arrived on Lombok, without any kind of legal process. The sooner the better.’

Japanese men who were still free got a price on their head. Lijftogt writes to his family that he feels these measures are ‘completely wrong’. He cannot reconcile these actions with the friendly Resident, who ‘cried during church service’ last Sunday but told Lapré when leaving church to kill anyone who was seen putting up anti-Dutch pamphlets.

‘The pemoeda and the Japanese’ were for many ex-prisoners a case of ‘kill them all’, as Lijftogt writes home. However, when one colleague tells him about the horrible experiences of the Japanese internment camp, Lijftogt becomes more understanding of the behavior of his supervisors, who are ‘on the verge of breaking down’ because of their traumas. ‘People are still very bruised, and so are we’. Then, Lijftogt gets the message that he is being transferred to Bali. The military regime is much harsher there. Jacobs, himself not very gentle, said about this that ‘the daily killing of approximately one hundred men, of which forty per cent are innocent, happens there quite often’, Lijftogt writes to Linde before his departure to Bali.

‘Indigenous-people lovers’

July 1946

On Bali, his conscience quickly gets put to the test even more. ‘How is life here?’, he writes. ‘Linde, we are going to have a very difficult time here.’ His wife is about to board the boat to the Dutch Indies, together with their one-year-old son. ‘The number of human wrecks that one finds here is unsettling’, he says about his ex-prisoner colleagues and the military men.

Despite all this, he is militant. This is the place where he will see if he and his wife can ‘practice their beliefs’. These beliefs were inspired by Christianity, Buddhism and different philosophers. Linde was a nurse with pacifist ideas. ‘She hated all the military stuff’, says Ida. ‘She also went to treat Balinese people with scabies. That was not done, you were not supposed to interfere with these people as a European’. The couple were called ‘indigenous-people lovers’. They became isolated from the European social life, and Lijftogt mediated with the Indonesian resistance. Sometimes, he went away for three weeks to talk to them in their local language. However, he could not prevent the violent killing of the Balinese resistance leader and his followers, on the 20th of November 1946. ‘That really hurt him’, his daughter says, filled with emotion. Lijftogt wrote fiery accounts to Frederik Baron van Asbeck, a friend of the family who was also a professor of international law and a high civil servant in Batavia. He calls the behavior on Bali ‘mild’ compared to South Celebes, but states that on the island 10,000 people have been taken as political prisoners, 2000 of whom have been violently abused. ‘Hitting, kicking, putting them in the sun for hours, hanging them up with their feet barely touching the ground.’

The harsh policy was motivated by the belief that the Balinese people who were loyal to the Dutch could be separated from the ‘extremists.’9 In reality, that division was difficult to make. The policy only caused the local inhabitants to become victims of violence – by the resistance movement and by the Dutch army with their local supporters. According to Lijftogt, this would lead to a civil war. Similarly, on Java a military solution would end with a ‘more disastrous situation than ever’ and inevitably lead to feelings of revenge among the local inhabitants. He writes this in June 1947 to Van Asbeck – one month later, the Eerste Politionele Actie (First Police Action) would start.


Oktober/October 1947

Van Asbeck is the first one to do something with the information Lijftogt provided him, as his account is published anonymously in the resistance journal Je Maintiendrai, in October 1947. Van Asbeck also sent one of Lijftogt’s letters to former Prime Minister Schermerhorn, who was involved in the negotiations with the Indonesian Republic.

In this letter he writes that he opposes a situation that he feels is inhuman, just as during the German occupation of the Netherlands. He feels like an ‘intellectual SD-member’ who is being used to do ‘dehumanizing work’ like ‘making up ruses to catch pemoeda’s after gaining their trust’. Lijftogt reports in his letter: ‘that we kill, torture and imprison the spes patriae of a people by the hundreds, that we are becoming completely corrupt and hold large drinking parties to forget the mess we made’.

Tellegen sends his letter to Lambertus Neher, who is involved in the negotiations with the Indonesian Republic as a delegate from the Opperbestuur in Batavia. He is not very impressed by the observations of his former resistance pupil. He sees the mood of Lijftogt as ‘bitterness’. Mistakes are being made, but a comparison to the German occupier is a bridge too far for him. Horrible side effects are part of a battle for freedom and are often a response to terror from the Indonesian side, says Neher.

‘Bitterness?’ responds Lijftogt. He wrote his letter because he feels ‘responsible as a Dutchman, for what we, as Dutch, do here’. And if Neher really believes that Dutch terror is a response to Indonesian terror, ‘then you are very poorly informed about what happens outside of Batavia’. It must have been very painful for Lijftogt that the people he used as a moral compass did not understand him. Neher wrote to Tellegen that ‘the mood of the letter feels like mania’. ‘I fear that the young man has been tasked with something too big for him’. And so closed the cover-up.

For the remainder of his life up until his death in 2005, Lijftogt did not want to return to Indonesia. He became a professor of sociology and worked as consultant at the Nederlandse Stichting voor Psychotechniek. During an interview regarding the role of civil servants in Indonesia held in the 1970s, he avoided answering the question about whether the Dutch committed war crimes. ‘He closed it all off and did not want to become a second Joop Hueting’, is what his daughter Ida thinks.

Lijftogt had served in the Dutch resistance ‘because he was unable to do otherwise’. He held on to that moral standard during his time in the Dutch Indies. His progressive ideas caused him to be called a traitor when he left the Dutch Indies. Ida: ‘he was one of the very few people who understood that violence was not a solution. That isolation was a personal drama for him’.



Listen the interview, by clicking Here
Anne-Lot Hoek talked about Siebe Lijftogt during an interview with OVT radio in 2018 [English subtitles added]. A quote from the interview: “And he identified himself very much with that Indonesian resistance fighter. We called those people extremists. And he thought: extremists? That man on the other side, actually looks like me and what I fought for.”


  1. Remy Limpach, De Brandende Kampongs van Generaal Spoor [The Burning Kampongs of General Spoor] (Amsterdam: Boom Uitgevers, 2016), 623-656.

  2. Poncke Princen, Een kwestie van kiezen.Zijn levensverhaal opgetekend door Joyce van Fenema (Den Haag: BBNC Uitgevers, 1995), 59.

  3. Anne-Lot Hoek, “Een vuil oorlogje op Bali” [A dirty war on Bali] NRC Handelsblad, November 15, 2014.

  4. Geoffrey Robinson, The Dark side of Paradise: political violence in Bali (London: Cornell University Press, 1995), 136.

  5. Anne-Lot Hoek, “Wij gaan het hier nog heel moeilijk krijgen,” [We are going to have a very difficult time here] NRC Handelsblad, January 9, 2016.

  6. Anne-Lot Hoek “Je huid was of te blank, of te bruin,” [Your skin was either too white or too brown] NRC Handelsblad, August 12, 2016.

  7. Source: Twitter message NIOD.

  8. The quotations in this biography are taken from the private papers of Siebe Lijftogt and interviews with his daughter Ida Lijftogt; this material is still to be published in forthcoming PhD research.

  9. Robinson, The Dark side, 132.

                 Rengat (Part 1)

This article was originally published in Inside Indonesia, an abbreviated version was published in NRC Handelsblad

Source: https://www.insideindonesia.org/rengat-1949-part-1

Date: Sep 12, 2016

Author: Anne-Lot Hoek

The band, trumpets and drums sound from afar as I walk towards the memorial service in the centre of Rengat, a small provincial town in central Sumatra. All kinds of people are lined up in front of a monument next to the wide, brown Indragiri River: officials dressed in ceremonial or military uniform, police officers, school children, teachers and veterans. The ceremony for the Rengat Event (Peristiwa Rengat) begins with several speeches about Agresi Militer Belanda, one of the major Dutch military offensives against the Republic of Indonesia during the Indonesian Revolution. The district head places a garland at the monument. After the service the whole crowd moves to the riverfront to spread flowers in the water. They allow me, a Dutch person, to do so as well. 

Seventy-one years ago, right after the Second World War, the nationalist Sukarno proclaimed Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945. A bloody guerrilla war erupted soon afterwards with former coloniser, the Netherlands.  One hundred and forty thousand Dutch troops arrived between 1945 and 1949 to restore ‘law and order.’ Almost an equal number of people died, leaving Indonesia in a state of civil war. The Rengat Event was an attack by paratroopers of the Dutch special forces (Korps Speciale Troepen) on Sumatran citizens. It took place on 5 January 1949, at the end of the ‘Second Police Action.’ According to Indonesian sources, almost 2000 people died, while Dutch documentation estimates around 80. Yet this violent story finds no place in the national memory of either country. 

In Holland, violence during the Indonesian Revolution has remained under-researched for decades, and then it was only shown from the Dutch perspective. In a Dutch television program, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte didn’t give any answers regarding the responsibility for Dutch war crimes.  The long struggle – an intense five years – was euphemistically presented to the public as a Dutch ‘police action.’ Violence was scaled down to just two series of small-scale actions. An official statement by the prime minister in 1969, after a brief three-month period of official archival research, labelled extreme violence during this war ‘incidental.’ Dutch historian Cees Fasseur’s report on this research was entitled Excessennota, a Memorandum on Excesses. It contained an inventory of ‘incidents.’ Recently, however, new research on the violence has come out in the Netherlands concluding that extreme violence by the Dutch army was ‘structural.’* 

So what happened in Rengat? And why did it get so out of hand? 

Red beaks

Panca Setyo Prihatin is a lecturer at the local university. His late father was the war veteran, Wasmad Rads. He picks me up at the airport of oil town Pekanbaru in central Sumatra. His father witnessed the attack that the Dutch called ‘Operation Mud’ (Operatie Modder). Its aim was to reoccupy the oil fields just north of Rengat and at nearby Air Molek. In his memoirs, Rads describes how it all started on that morning of 5 January 1949. He was walking down the street when he suddenly heard aeroplanes flying over. He called them ‘red beaks’ (cocor merah). They were P-51 Mustang fighter-bombers. They dropped bombs on the streets, the market square where people were shopping, and on civilian homes. ‘They were even shooting at people on the ground.’ Rads and his friend, Himron Saheman, also a republican soldier, hid in a hole in the riverbank. Later I speak with the now 90-year-old Himron. He tells me he wanted to shoot at the planes. ‘But Rads said, no we won’t survive that, we better hide.’ Panca shows me the hole – ‘the window of the river’ – that saved their lives. 

Soldiers of the 1st Parachutists Company of the Corps Special Troops get ready for departure early in the morning at airfield Tjililitan (Jakarta) in a Dakota that will drop them above Jambi (Operation Magpie) - Credit: Nederlands Instituut voor Militaire Historie (Netherlands Institute for Military History)

At around 11 in the morning, after the planes had left, 180 paratroopers landed in a neighbourhood of Rengat called Kampong Skip. Their leader, I learned from Dutch sources on the event, was Lieutenant Rudy de Mey. Military historian, Jaap de Moor, writes in his book Westerlings Oorlog (1999), about the military performance of the Dutch special forces, that De Mey faced ‘fierce resistance’ from the Indonesian army that was trying to flee Rengat. The Dutch paratroopers responded with gunfire. According to De Moor, this is how 80 people, the same number as in the Memorandum on Excesses, died, both civilians and combatants. He doesn’t indicate any deaths on the Dutch side. 

Little evidence is left in Kampong Skip. One resident identifies a place where there used to be a bullet hole in the wall, but they recently renovated the house. After the attack, they renamed the neighbourhood ‘Skip Sipayung,’ referring to the payung, or umbrellas, by which the parachutists came down. We also visit the pasanggrahan, the government guest house in the former ‘European quarter’ in the centre of town, where colonial civil servants used to work. It is one of the few old buildings left in Rengat. The floors are made with typical Dutch tiles, as is the roof. According to Rads in his memoirs, just up the river from here these civil servants, as well as 27 policemen, a guard and four prison guards, were lined up in an open field, executed and thrown into the river. 

‘Hollander man’

One of those executed civil servants was Tulus, the district head. At the commemoration in Rengat that day, I sit next to his daughters Nini Turaiza and Tuhilwi Tulus, and his granddaughter Naya. Tulus also had an older son, the famous revolutionary poet Chairil Anwar, who lived in Jakarta during the Dutch attack. ‘He was a very “Hollander” man; tall, big, smart,’ says Nini about her father while pointing her walking stick upwards. ‘He spoke the language fluently and looked up to the Dutch ratu [queen] Wilhelmina.’ As a former Dutch employee, her father didn’t flee. 

We walk to the former house of Nini and Tuhilwi by the riverbank. On the fifth of January 1949, Nini and Tuhilwi’s mother hid them and their other two sisters in this house. Dutch soldiers shot her father in front of the house, next to the river, together with his secretary Simatupang and two other civil servants. According to an eyewitness, the soldiers hesitated to kill Tulus, who was said to have been calm and brave. ‘That’s why they shot him in the back,’ says Nini. Later the soldiers returned to the house, where family members of Simatupang were also hiding. They had to line up, and Nini’s mother yelled: ‘Are you now going to shoot children?’ The next day, Dutch and Ambonese soldiers came again and asked the women to come with them to the army camp. ‘If you want to take me there, you will have to kill me first,’ her mother told them. When they left, she fled with the children to family elsewhere in town. Nini remembers running through a small street with perhaps 20 scattered bodies. Because most of the bodies were thrown into the river, it was not possible to give her father a proper funeral. ‘Life became difficult for my mother afterwards. She had to raise five children by herself.’ Up to my arrival Nini was very angry with the Dutch, she told me. She didn’t want to practise her knowledge of the Dutch language that she had learned as a young girl. ‘Ik wil niet Nederlands spreken’ (I don’t want to speak in Dutch), she often said to me. But after we started this conversation about a shared history, she began to wish me goodnight and good morning in Dutch. 

Through a local veterans organisation we meet another relative of a victim, Mrs Roslia. She lives in a simple kampung house, with chickens and children running around. Her family indicates she’s around 78. She was a young girl on 5 January 1949 and remembers hearing the bombing in the morning. Her father, a farmer, took his family in a small boat to the other side of the river, where it was safer. They saw two Republican soldiers in the water, waving for help. Her father went back and dragged the two soldiers on board. But he was shot by the Dutch. The family hid for three days and kept themselves alive with food from the forest and supplies by relatives. ‘Almost all kampung people fled to the forest,’ Mrs Roslia says. Later on they tried to find her father’s body, but didn’t succeed. Her brother told her he saw many bodies floating in the river. ‘They were face down: people tried to flip them over to see if they could recognise their relatives.’ Five of Roslia’s uncles lost their lives that day in the market. The family offers us rambutans and mangosteens. We eat quietly, listening to stories, and to the cascading rain. 

‘Not pretty!’


Did the Dutch authorities not know about this when they afterwards listed Rengat as merely an ‘incident’? Before visiting Sumatra I went to the National Archive in The Hague. I discovered that they did know, but then chose to look the other way. The Memorandum on Excesses stated that Dutch authorities ordered not one but two internal investigations into the Rengat attack. 

One was a civil investigation after complaints by local civil servants. The ‘resident’ – the highest Dutch civil authority in the area in 1949 – had characterised the military behaviour in a letter to his superiors in Jakarta as ‘more than criminal’: 400 people had been ‘shot from behind their writing tables.’ The responsible Dutch prosecutor in the district of Riau, however, dismissed the case in his civil report as a situation that simply got out of hand. Written in pencil next to the resident’s statement was: ‘exclusively whining by old nags.’ The prosecutor complained that he suffered from a ‘mid-ear infection’ and was too ‘disabled’ to go to Rengat to see for himself. Based on information from a local civil servant, he put the death toll among ‘non-combatants’ at 84, with another 36 ‘combatants’. This list of 120 names includes bupati Tulus. With these 36 ‘combatants’ he meant the 27 policemen and five guards that Rads had mentioned in his book as being executed, and an additional four soldiers belonging to the Republican army. The prosecutor stated in his conclusion that ‘around 80’ people died in the ‘ill-fated course of events’, but that biased informants had ‘grossly exaggerated’ this number. It was this reduced number that consistently appeared in Dutch officials statements since then.

The military also conducted an investigation. General Simon Spoor, the top Dutch commander in Indonesia, ordered an investigation because he was displeased about what he had heard. The dossier contains no less than 22 eyewitness accounts from Indonesian residents of Kampong Skip, and correspondence between Dutch officials. The stories were gruesome. A woman said her husband was killed and her 24-year-old daughter raped. A man said his sixteen-year-old pregnant daughter died from a bullet, while his house was looted. There is a story of people being driven into the river and killed by machineguns, one of a woman and the baby under her arm being shot, and one of a father killed together with his three young sons. Afterwards, residents were forced to throw the dead bodies into the river. Much shooting appeared to have been random. The village head said bullets were flying through the bamboo houses. The soldiers, meanwhile, said they had been specifically looking for ‘combatants’ like policemen. Ironically, many of these had worked for the Dutch before the war, some for decades. 

The military dossier also contained Dutch sources confirming the violence. An Ambonese intelligence officer with the Dutch army described how a group of around 100 people, who were hiding in holes in the riverbank and under the wharf, including women and children, were shot by Dutch soldiers. ‘I saw the bodies drift away.’ A colonial officer who was sent to inspect the ‘European quarter’ confirmed he saw traces and even pools of blood. Seeing the floating bodies in the river, ‘even a woman with a child at her arm,’ he wrote that he suspected an execution had taken place, but that it had been conducted by the Republican army. 

However, there was no follow-up to this military investigation. The Memorandum on Excesses did not even mention the eyewitness reports.

Curiously, it was an article in the public domain that attracted the attention of the prime minister. It appeared in a Singaporean newspaper right after the event. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs brought this to the attention of Prime Minister Drees. The minister of overseas territories, who saw it as well, responded with: ‘Noticed. Not pretty!’ We do not know whether either undertook any further action. The article stated that more than a thousand people had been killed in Rengat. The Dutch let ‘Indonesians kill Indonesians’ – this referred to the Ambonese soldiers in the Dutch colonial army. The Memorandum on Excesses did not mention the description given in this newspaper article. 

More than a thousand

Back to Rengat. The memorial monument is a white obelisk. A plaque has 186 names engraved on it. At the top it reads ‘about 1500 people’ died. Wasmad Rads, Himron Saheman, and local historian SE Susilowadi, who all wrote about the event, even claim in their books that several thousand people died. These numbers differ greatly from the Dutch sources. There are a few possible explanations in the archival material for this discrepancy. The Dutch assistant to the resident stated in a letter to Dutch authorities that many people were afraid to testify for fear of revenge by Dutch troops who were still around. Another Dutch civil servant stated that many people who were killed in Rengat were not registered as residents in the town, because they came from elsewhere. 

Kampong Skip was the focus of investigations, but it seems other areas were affected as well. In Kampong Simpanglima we meet 77-year-old Mrs Rubina, daughter of another victim. As a young girl she and her parents heard the bombs fall on the town. She makes the sound of paratroopers landing – the ‘balloons’ whooshed and popped. They started shooting with machineguns and people were running and hiding. Soldiers came by the house and shot her father, a farmer. ‘He had a small bullet hole in the front in his chest, but at the back the whole body was exploded,’ she says. To me, this indicates the illegal use of ‘dumdum’ bullets. The soldiers, she insists, were not Ambonese. They were white Dutchmen. ‘One was fat and tall.’ She claims almost all her neighbours died. Bodies were lying everywhere, even of small children. 

After it became quiet in town, Rubina walked around and saw many dead bodies in the market, on the streets, and in front of the post office. Dead nurses lay in front of the hospital. In the Dutch police report included in the military dossier there is an account of 15-year-old Yatinah, a nurse who refused to have intercourse with the soldiers and was killed. Her name also appears on the Dutch death list, and on the monument in Rengat. According to Rubina, the many bodies in the river floated so close together that ‘they formed a field.’ She thinks there were ‘more than a thousand.’ People couldn’t eat fish from the river for a long time. Rubina says her family bought a fish that contained a human finger. Her story is later confirmed to us by 89-year-old Mr (Encik) Masfar. He saw ‘around 1600’ bodies floating in the river. They stretched from the town centre to as far as he could see. He felt dizzy and sick from the smell. ‘Bodies got caught up in floating trees.’ Some were wearing military uniforms, he said, but most were naked. 

Later on, back in Holland, KITLV historian Bart Luttikhuis and I compare the death list of 186 on the Rengat monument with the one containing 120 in the Dutch police report. Only 36 names are the same in both. If we assume both lists are correct, we arrive at a total number of 270 deaths. However, the small amount of overlap suggests that neither list is complete. A satisfactory conclusion concerning the number of deaths now seems impossible. What is certain is that the number is high, and that the lives of far more than 80 people were greatly affected. 

Out of hand?

Why did it get so out of hand? And did it get out of hand, as the prosecutor concluded, or was this type of behaviour by the special forces and their paratroopers within the line of expectation? It seems that good military leadership was lacking during the attack on Rengat. The resident complained in his report about bad organisation and under-qualified people in charge. Dutch sociologists Hendrix and Van Doorn indicated already in a book in 1970 that mass violence by these forces during the Indonesian Revolution was ‘structural’ rather than ‘incidental.’ Military historian De Moor underlines that killing was their job: they were a counter-insurgency unit. De Moor concludes that ‘executions and liquidation of prisoners often happened’ during operations by the special forces: they were ‘standard procedure.’ The archival material I have seen confirms this, and shows that Rengat was not an exception during the ‘police actions’ on Sumatra. Just before the attack on Rengat, the same paratroopers had committed extreme violence in the nearby town of Jambi as well. In the same archival file of the military investigation in Rengat is a statement by a Dutch war photographer describing how the troops experienced no resistance during the landing in Jambi yet fired like crazy. Their work ‘degraded into looting and destruction.’ Hospital personnel were placed against a wall, and a ‘European soldier with a jungle carbine’ shot three young guys wearing Red Cross armbands. ‘When they were lying on the ground they were still moving, whereupon another soldier with a pistol gave them a headshot.’ 


Another explanation might be that the paratroopers were exhausted and possibly drugged when they landed in Rengat. Before ‘the hitching-on for the jump’ in the aeroplane, ‘three soldiers collapsed,’ their commanding officer, Captain W.D.H. Eekhout wrote to military officials after the events in Rengat. They were exhausted after performing three jumps within a three week period: Yogyakarta, Jambi and Rengat. Eekhout therefore prescribed Benzedrine tablets to his men. This drug had been widely used in the Second World War and later in the Vietnam War. Comparable to speed, it was intended ‘to repel exhaustion.’ To make matters worse, the paratroopers first accidentally landed in rice paddies outside of Skip that were flooded at the time. They nearly choked in the mud. ‘The action was therefore rightly named Operation Mud,’ Eekhout wrote. 

Perhaps the culture of the special forces played a role as well. The lieutenant in charge, Rudy de Mey, had a close personal relationship with the notorious Captain Raymond Westerling, former commander of the special forces and responsible for killing thousands of Indonesians in South Sulawesi. Swiss-Dutch historian Rémy Limpach points out in his article ‘Business as usual’ that military authorities categorised these killings as great accomplishments and an example to others. Westerling described himself in his memoirs, openly published in the Netherlands in 1952, as a ‘fair monarch,’ an eastern-style ‘Robin Hood,’ defender of the common people, bringer of order and peace. He gave a biblical aura to the mission he had to carry out. The ‘DNA’ he transferred to fellow-paratroopers such as De Mey was built around one conviction: the Indonesian people were to be liberated by using mass violence against other Indonesians. He was the Jacob who separated the black sheep from the white. Westerling had such a high esteem for De Mey that from September 1947 he let him command the special actions (such as Rengat). Browsing through De Moor’s book, you can see how time and again De Mey’s ‘cleansings’ caused the Dutch authorities moral dilemmas. Separating the sheep seems to have been a mission impossible. But in the end, there was only one redeemer who made enough headlines to carry him into the history books: Westerling himself. Like a martyr, he was proudly willing to become the scapegoat for everything that went wrong in Indonesia. 

Back in Pekanbaru, before I take the plane back to the Netherlands, Panca and I stand before the grave of his father, Wasmad Rads, who died in 2014. After the attack on Rengat, the Dutch held him captive for half a year and tortured him. ‘The Dutch come too late,’ Panca says to me, referring to my visit. His father was not embittered. But, Panca told me, he would have liked to look back at history together with Dutch people, not in anger, but just to say: ‘This is what actually happened to me.’ Why has this not happened? And why did neither the Netherlands nor Indonesia include Rengat in their history books? That is a question for the next article. 

*Swiss-Dutch historian Rémy Limpach’s dissertation at the University of Bern concluded in September 2015 that Dutch military behaviour was structural. Dutch KITLV director Gert Oostindie confirmed this statement with KITLV research in his 2015 book Soldaat in Indonesia 1945-1950 (Soldier in Indonesia 1945-1950). In 2014 Colonial Counterinsurgency and Mass Violence was published, edited by Bart Luttikhuis and Dirk Moses with contributions of Dutch historians such as Remco Raben, Peter Romijn and Stef Scagliola. 


This article, which appeared in a shorter version in Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad earlier in 2016, is the first of a two-part series

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               Rengat (Part 2)

This article was originally published in Inside Indonesia, an abbreviated version was published in NRC Handelsblad

Source: https://www.insideindonesia.org/rengat-1949-part-2

Date: Sep 12, 2016

Author: Anne-Lot Hoek

On a gloomy morning in The Hague in March 2016, King William Alexander awarded Dutch Army commando troops the country's highest royal decoration. It was awarded for military courage shown during their 2005-2010 mission in Afghanistan. Several days later, King Alexander received a letter from 77-year-old Indonesian woman Nini Turaiza Tulus. Her letter detailed the execution in 1949 of her father in the Sumatran town of Rengat by the predecessor of these forces, during the Indonesian independence war. The bloodbath of Rengat had gone unnoticed by the public in the Netherlands. 

Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, proclaimed independence on 17 August 1945. Soon afterwards, a bloody guerrilla war broke out against the Dutch colonial powers. It took until the end of 1949, an estimated 120,000 deaths later, before the Netherlands conceded and recognised Indonesian sovereignty over the archipelago.

It is not widely known internationally that the Netherlands had their own ‘Vietnam War’, and their own ‘My Lai’. It took several decades before violence during the Indonesian war gained serious attention from Dutch academics. The ingredients for such a work were there, but not the urgency. Recently there are two publications of interest: a 900 paged book on Dutch military behaviour by Swiss-Dutch historian Rémy Limpach that will be published the end of September 2016, and KITLV director Gert Oostindie’s research of egodocumentation that was published in 2015 and is now translated in Indonesian. Their conclusion was that Dutch extreme violence was structural, not incidental. However, The Dutch Ministry of Defence on its website still calls the actions of its soldiers in Sumatra during that time a ‘striking performance.’ 

Anybody concerned with the Dutch reputation for human rights might find all this less than ‘striking.’ Arguably, the Dutch began to take a great interest in the importance of human rights in the 1960s, once it had begun to realise its own legacy of violence during periods of colonialism and decolonisation. But still this violence was not looked squarely in the face. In 1980, while Dutch solidarity groups fought against South African apartheid, the queen pinned a decoration on the ensign of the very same forces responsible for the attacks on Rengat, for their performance in Sumatra in 1948-1949. 

Nor has sufficient attention been paid to other, non-Dutch perspectives in the national memory. An example is the annual commemoration of the Second World War in the Netherlands on 4 May. That ritual acknowledges Dutch victims of that war and Dutch veterans of the Indonesian independence struggle in one breath. Yet the Indonesian war was of a completely different kind, in which the Netherlands actually begrudged another nation the freedom that is celebrated the next day, on 5 May. Other victims including tens of thousands of Indonesians are left out of the remembrance. 

To unleash the beast

Why did historians not deal with these imbalances? Why did nobody unleash the beast? The media often wrote in terms of ‘conspiracies of silence’ but the information was actually widely available. State archives on this period have been open since the 1980s.  As Paul Bijl from the University of Amsterdam shows in his book Emerging Memory: Photographs of Colonial Atrocity in Dutch Cultural Remembrance over the last century the Dutch have 'discovered' again and again that they had a violent colonial past. Yet academics preferred to focus on safer issues like the politics of decolonisation, while at the same time claiming colonial violence was not an ‘intellectual challenge.’  

It was clear from the start that the Dutch government was never interested in setting the record straight. Too many interests conspired against it. Legal concerns about procedures like war reparations played a role, as did fears of international loss of face. At home, large communities of postcolonial Dutch who had faced the wrath of war and its aftermath refused to countenance a revisionist history. 

The first real challenge came in 1969. Dutch war veteran Joop Hueting went on national television to speak about Dutch atrocities in Indonesia. ‘We were professional killers,’ he claimed, who didn’t shun sadistic torture like putting prisoners on a steaming hot truck to scald their skin, and who could easily murder an entire family. He specifically stated that these weren’t isolated incidents, but cases of structural violence in the Dutch army. 

Concrete threats from war veterans caused Hueting and his family to go into hiding, but the Dutch public was only momentarily shocked. Hueting himself was astonished when he noticed how loudly the public cried out over the Americans at My Lai, which had taken place the year before, but did not want to compare it to the Dutch My Lai equivalent that he described. 

This became a consistent pattern for decades. It was like a rock hitting the water, causing a brief arousal of emotion only to fade away, the violence itself never analysed by historians. One of the few Dutch academics who did address the violence was Harry Poeze of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in his masterpiece about the Indonesian revolutionary Tan Malaka. He told the story from an Indonesian perspective. 

In fact the government did react to Hueting’s statement, but only in a palliative manner. It gave the historian Cees Fasseur just three months to compile an archival inventory in 1969. This became the Memorandum on Excesses. The prime minister concluded the violence had not constituted ‘war crimes’ but had been ‘incidents.’ And that was that, for decades to come. 

Every now and then the flame would light up again. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Dutch deserter Poncke Princen, who crossed over to side with the Indonesian revolution, aroused the ire of Dutch war veterans when he asked to return to Holland. The funeral in 1987 of Captain Westerling was another such moment. And another was the state visit to Indonesia by Queen Beatrix, who deliberately arrived a few days after the 17 August Indonesian independence day celebrations in 1995 to avoid upheaval at home. Yet another was the Dutch writer Graa Boomsma, who was sued by Dutch war veterans after his book compared their behaviour to the methods of Nazi Germany. In recent years there have been several revealing photographs of atrocities, found now and then in a dying veteran’s album and published in the newspaper. They caused great commotion, but, without the proper context, they revealed nothing more than what they showed. 

Until very recently, there had been some friendly knocking on the door, but no one bothered to kick it in. This happened in 2011, when the Dutch/ Indonesian activist Jeffry Pondaag and lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld successfully sued the Dutch state for atrocities committed in the Javanese village of Rawagedeh in 1947. Later they sued again over the large-scale executions carried out in South Sulawesi in 1946 under the command of Captain Westerling, and for a woman who had been raped by Dutch soldiers in the Javanese village of Peniwen in 1949. At last, the hand of the law had broken through the controversy.

A year later, three Dutch research institutes appealed for funding from the government to conduct thorough historical research into Dutch violence during the Indonesian revolution. The appeal was turned down. In the meantime, Swiss/ Dutch historian Rémy Limpach concluded that extreme violence against Indonesians by the Dutch army was widespread and integrated into the structure of the Dutch army. He will publish his book on Dutch military behaviour during 1945-1949 in September 2016. The director of one of the institutes, Gert Oostindie (KITLV), recently wrote a book based on the published diaries and letters of Dutch war veterans that supported this conclusion. 

According to KITLV director Gert Oostindie, confronting the public with an ugly issue such as Dutch war crimes was, so to speak, ‘not done’ amongst the Dutch academic elite of colonial historians, many of whom had ancestry in the Dutch Indies. ‘The atmosphere was: why should we bother to look into that? It wasn’t “chic”.’ 

The younger generation of Dutch historians, meanwhile, appeared to lack the radical attitude necessary to make the story part of the national discourse; to be able to integrate multiple perspectives into the narrative and address the issue of violence. As most indicated, this wasn’t something intentional, but very different academic questions were being posed at that time. However, some of these historians were Asian Studies specialists, and part of international discussions with academics like historian Robert Cribb. Others were anthropologists who did address issues of violence and Indonesian perspectives. But these discussions hardly seemed to influence the Dutch national discourse. 

As late as 1999, historian De Moor still described the performance of the commander responsible for the attack on Rengat as an example of good ‘military-administrative pacification work’ by which he was able ‘to win the population for the Dutch cause.’ The violence and its implications on the Indonesian side has remained a ‘blind spot’ in the Dutch debate. The gap is wide between Dutch colonial historians on the one hand, with their one-sided Dutch perspective, and Asian Studies specialists and anthropologists on the other, who sympathise with the Indonesian perspectives. So far, the two have never come together. 

Words matter

An academic elite uninterested in violence and non-Dutch perspectives dominated the Dutch public debate for a long time. The main public figure in this debate was Cees Fasseur. When he wrote the Memorandum on Excesses in 1969 he was a young civil servant in the Justice Ministry. When he later became a professor at the University of Leiden and enjoyed full academic freedom, he did not take the subject further. It didn’t interest him, he said. But whenever the media reached out for historical context on this subject, he was the first to climb the stage. 

It is possible to discern some ‘strategies of avoidance’ in relation to the issue of violence. Historians like Fasseur often spoke of the need for ‘neutrality,’ by which they meant an objective outlook on what really happened, rather than making it into a moral issue. One of the problems with this ‘neutrality’ was that is was mainly sought in the Dutch archives. Oral history, recording the concrete experiences of people, as Fasseur and many of his contemporaries often remarked, was unreliable. When I spoke with Fasseur in 2013 after a Dutch television programme in which Dutch activist Max van der Werff interviewed Indonesian victims of Dutch atrocities committed in Java, he reacted indignantly. ‘These people are mixing up experiences of their own army in 1965 with that of the Dutch police actions in 1948!’ he exclaimed. In other words: the statements these people make are untrustworthy. 

He later repeated this on tape to KITLV researchers in a 2014 interview: ‘The idea that these kinds of bloodbaths went on unnoticed, is of course clear-cut nonsense!’. Apparently, integrating Indonesian experiences didn’t fit his idea of the ‘accepted truth,’ which, he seems convinced, could be found only in the Dutch archives.

But it also gets more personal. In his memoirs, written just before he passed away, Fasseur suggested that his lack of interest in further research was itself a matter of moral conviction. ‘Why look into all these tragic events again?’ he asks. This could be a reason why he never afterwards indicated the need for more research concerning his claim in the Memorandum on Excesses that Rengat caused 80 deaths. In response to Limpach’s research in 2015, he stated that in 1969 it would have been impossible to accuse people of committing war crimes in Indonesia. After all, they had just fought against Nazi Germany and were then sent by the Dutch government to fight against the Indonesians. In other words: these soldiers had suffered a great deal; it would be morally unacceptable to say to them and their relatives, 'you might have committed war crimes'. Understandable as this sentiment no doubt is, it is neither ‘neutral’ nor ‘objective.’ It could in any case have been dealt with decades earlier, for instance in the 1980s or 1990s. 

One thing Fasseur did not mention, though it obviously played a role in Dutch society, was violence against (Eurasian) Dutch civilians by Indonesian revolutionary youth at the onset of the Indonesian Revolution. This had not received much attention in the Netherlands either. These postcolonial groups were given a cold welcome when they came to Holland after Indonesian independence. They had suffered greatly in the Japanese camps and at the hands of the revolutionaries, yet were looked down upon as former colonials. Whenever Dutch war crimes against Indonesians were mentioned in the Dutch media, they responded in anger. Sadly enough, this polarised a discussion that should only have been about a war that caused many tragic deaths, and for which the Dutch government bears the greatest responsibility.

Another ‘strategy of avoidance’ of the Dutch academic establishment concerns its use of words with a pacifistic or euphemistic ring. The use of words such as ‘excess’ to describe brutal violence is common, rather than phrases like ‘structural violence.’ Persistent labelling of violence in such ways creates wildfires. The British professor Phillipe Sands argues in his new book, East West Street, that words matter profoundly for the way violence is perceived in a society. The Turkish turmoil around the Armenian Genocide clearly shows this. But so does the upheaval in Dutch society in 2013, when American historian William Frederick indicated that the killings of (Eurasian) Dutch by Indonesian revolutionary youths in 1945 may have been genocide. A wave of emotion went through affected postcolonial groups. ‘Genocide’ was much worse than it had seemed thus far. 


Academics had been aware since at least 1970 that there was a clear indication of a structural pattern to Dutch military violence in Indonesia. Just one year after the Memorandum on Excesses, sociologists Jacques van Doorn and Wim Hendrix, two former conscripted soldiers who had taken up careers as sociologists, described such a structural pattern out of their own experiences. Despite their analysis, they still upheld the term ‘excess’ and no follow-up research was done. 

The well-known Dutch historian Loe de Jong was the only one who tried to assail the use of the word ‘excess’. In the epilogue to his 1987 magnum opus about the Netherlands in the Second World War, he used the term ‘war crimes’ for the Dutch military behaviour in Indonesia. This became a riot when a co-reading war veteran leaked this conclusion in a well-read Dutch newspaper. The powerful veteran community put him under so much pressure that he changed it back to ‘excess.’ Historian Stef Scagliola was one of the first to use the word ‘war crime’ in her dissertation in 2002. Fasseur, who had supported Loe de Jong in his experiment, didn’t write about ‘structural violence’ or ‘war crimes’ himself. He called the juggling with terminology in his memoirs ‘not more than a play of words.’

Yellow flags

It would have helped the Dutch discussion if there had been a better interaction with Indonesians, who could have told Dutch researchers: 'Look, this is what happened, talk to us about it.' Panca and Naya actually did this when I was in Rengat. But interaction with professional Indonesian historians on this subject wasn’t set up for a long time. I discovered to my surprise that the Rengat Event is as little known in Indonesia as it is in the Netherlands. In a coffee shop in Rengat, Naya tells me that the event is part of the regional, but not national, history. Just as Dutch national history has been selective, cultural memory in Indonesia has been shaped by present concerns as well.

One of these concerns could have been that the independence struggle had some characteristics of a civil war. Not all Indonesians supported the Republic. While driving through a Rengat neighbourhood called Gadang, Naya indicated to me it had been pro-Dutch during the revolution. ‘These people were traitors,’ she explains. They had collaborated with the Dutch. One of them was the local sultan. ‘My father was betrayed by the sultan,’ Nini adds. 

Yellow flags were put in front of houses that belonged to the sultan or his family right before the attack, Nini claims. The purpose appeared to be to mark them as pro-Dutch to the military. ‘The son of the sultan was flying with the Dutch over Rengat to mark the spots where to put a yellow flag.’ Encik Masfar, whose father was an adviser to the sultan, saw a yellow flag in front of his house just before the attack. 

The Dutch police report contains corresponding evidence: a Dutch captain says he brought the son of the sultan into safety by the start of the action, when found ‘shopping in the market.’ He installed a personal security member in front of the sultan’s house. The sultan, whom the police also interviewed after the attack, stated that he personally did not notice ‘any unmannerly behaviour.’ Naya says it is still a sensitive matter today. The sultan’s family recently ‘tried to change history’ by making the events of 5 January 1949 into a festivity: the anniversary of Rengat. ‘We were outraged!’ Naya says. ‘Luckily the district head declared this day was a distinct tragedy.’ 

Masfar is not surprised about the sultan’s support for the Dutch: ‘It was a relationship that went back far into history.’ As a young boy, he observed the sultan driving around in a big, fancy Dutch car. Local historian Susilowadi in 2006 wrote a history of the Indragiri sultanate. He describes a long Dutch involvement in the area, from the VOC up to the colonial administration. Such ‘collaboration’ was typical of many local aristocracies throughout the independence struggle. It was a continuation of the alliance between Indonesian royalty and the Dutch since colonial times.  

There were other ‘collaborating groups’ too, such as Ambonese and Menadonese colonial soldiers. All became the targets of popular anger after independence. The ‘long arm’ of Dutch colonialism took its toll even in its departing phase. It’s a story that includes division. It complicates the simplified discourse of heroism and a united Indonesian people. This is not dissimilar to the Netherlands, where it took a long time before it was possible to acknowledge in writing that many Dutch police had supported the Nazis during World War II, or for children of parents who had sympathised with the German occupier to address their experiences. 

The Dutch prime minister and the Indonesian president, when questioned in recent times about the violence of 1945-1949, both stated that it was necessary to look towards the future and let the past be the past. However, I feel Dutch and Indonesian researchers should keep searching for this common history. Late in 2016, the Dutch parliament is expected to set up an expert hearing on the issue of Dutch military violence in Indonesia. The words of the Dutch minister of foreign affairs who visited the village of Rawagedeh in March 2016 –  that this past should be researched – are hopeful. If set-up, this will be the first parliamentary hearing on this subject since 1969. It than will discuss new academic conclusions and hopefully it will outline new and improved horizons for the way forward for Dutch-Indonesian cooperation and research.  

This article, which appeared in a shorter version in Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad earlier in 2016, is the second of a two-part series

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